(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JON KRAWCZYNSKIAP Sports Writer
If the massive, gothic tattoos on Nikola Pekovic’s left shoulder and right calf don’t get your knees knocking, his expressionless face and 6-foot-11, 290-pound frame will do the trick.
Throw in a thick beard and a close-cropped haircut that comes to a point in the front just a few inches above his eyebrows, and he looks more like a henchman in a James Bond film than a center for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Thirty games into his second season in the NBA, Pekovic is showing that he has a big, bad game to match his menacing image.
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Pekovic is averaging 17.1 points and 11.7 rebounds in nine games this month to assert himself as the starting center the team has long been searching for while giving All-Star Kevin Love the extra muscle he has needed in the frontcourt.
”I knew what I can do,” Pekovic said on Thursday. ”Maybe I don’t know that I can do it like this so much, but I knew that I can play. … I was just waiting for my chance.”
Three weeks ago, Pekovic was hardly seeing the floor and looked like another Timberwolves second-round draft pick that wasn’t going to turn out. Now he’s a fan favorite who has emerged as a force in the middle with more nicknames than Jeremy Lin.
The Peksecutioner, Pektacular, Peksanity (a tongue-in-cheek homage to Lin’s out-of-nowhere explosion), Tyrannosaurus Pek (he doesn’t like that one very much), the Balkan Bulldozer. Then there’s his favorite.
”The Godfather,” Pekovic says, giving the closest thing to a smile that he’ll allow.
The Target Center speakers bellow with the famous mobster movie’s one-horn theme whenever Pekovic scores, though he probably more closely resembles Luca Brasi than Don Corleone. He’s doing all the dirty work in the trenches to protect Love and the rest of his team.
”I think it helps Kevin a little bit,” guard J.J. Barea said. ”Gives Kevin a little bit of a break and means Kevin doesn’t have to get all the rebounds. He’s done a tremendous job for this team. I think he’s going to keep getting better and it’s going to help us out.”
The latest example came Wednesday night against Charlotte, when Pekovic played a career-high 43 minutes – all 24 in the second half – and took Bobcats rookie Bismack Biyombo wherever he wanted to take him en route to 21 points and 11 rebounds in the victory.
”I don’t think he’s really had a poor game in the last two weeks,” coach Rick Adelman said recently. ”He doesn’t try to do anything that’s really not with his strengths. He stays with his strengths and he’s aggressive. You need people like that.”
And while he may look like a villain, he’s been a lovable hero to his teammates.
”He’s a teddy bear,” Barea said with a chuckle. ”But he’s tough. You don’t want to mess with him. But other than that, he’s the nicest guy out here. He’s nice to everybody, the workers around here. He’s awesome.”
His breakout season wasn’t quite the fairy tale that Lin’s has been in New York, but almost as unexpected.
The Timberwolves chose him with the first pick of the second round in 2008, but he remained in Greece for two years to work on his game.
In his first season in the United States last year, even with close Serbian friend Darko Milicic on the roster, Pekovic looked every bit the stranger in a strange land. He averaged just 5.5 points and 3.0 rebounds, and a groin injury and constant foul trouble limited him to just 13 minutes per game in 65 contests.
”I was trying to learn many things to try to improve myself in every segment,” Pekovic said. ”I know that if you want to play in this league you must learn how to play defense because defense here is very important. I’m just trying to play as much as I can without getting into stupid foul trouble.”
This season didn’t start off much better, with Big Pek only topping 17 minutes of playing time three times in the first 10 games.
Then the ineffective Milicic was injured, and Pekovic didn’t just walk through the open door, he lowered his shoulder and broke the thing down. Only once in the last 14 games has he failed to score double digits. He’s scored at least 20 five times in that span, including 27 and 11 rebounds in a win at New Jersey on Feb. 3.
”Thank God they took Pekovic out,” Lakers center Andrew Bynum said after getting knocked around by him in a win on Jan. 29.
Now he’s playing so well that there was some consideration for him being named to the Rising Stars game in Orlando, Fla., over All-Star weekend. He didn’t quite make the cut, much to rookie point guard Ricky Rubio’s chagrin.
”It would be nice to have a guy who would be behind me,” Rubio said with a smile.
Pekovic didn’t mind the snub. He’ll be ready to have Rubio’s back again when the real games begin again.
”He looks like an MMA fighter. He goes out there and works hard and busts his tail,” forward Martell Webster said. ”To some people his game may look ugly. But it looks beautiful to me.”
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