MINNEAPOLIS — In sports, a sensation usually has a hook.
The hometown hero. The difficult past. The looks. The personality. For each, there’s a reason to cheer, a sustaining factor that helps power an athlete from obscurity to phenomenon.
Jeremy Lin, who’s fueling the Knicks’ resurgence, went undrafted out of Harvard and was cut twice in the past three months.
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Tom Brady — yes, at one point even he was an unknown — was seventh on the QB depth chart at Michigan. He was picked 199th in the 2000 NFL draft.
David Freese emerged from the doldrums of injuries and the minors to help his hometown St. Louis Cardinals win the 2011 World Series.
The list goes on, chock-full of stories and moments that would seem too perfect to ever occur in reality. But perhaps the most recent addition to that list — a newer phenomenon even than Lin — is harder to define:
Nikola Pekovic doesn’t really fit the mold.
The Minnesota Timberwolves center is no hometown hero, and no one knows enough about his past to say whether he’s overcome anything.
Sure, he’s from Montenegro, and the swords and skulls that dot his arms and back suggest a background disparate from that of a kid who grew up in the suburban U.S. But Pekovic’s past has never come to the table in discussions of his newfound stardom, and his story goes only as far back as last season, when he was nothing more than a rookie reserve player.
His personality is kind but gruff, not open or particularly inviting. He doesn’t naturally draw reporters and fans to him, and the real estate around his locker was vacant, devoid of cameras and recording devices, until recent weeks.
So the closest thing to powering the phenomenon that is Pekovic — he’s averaging 17.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in 12 February games — may then just have to be his appearance, and that makes sense in a way.
At about 7 feet tall and 300 pounds, he looks like Paul Bunyan on the basketball court. It’s not a case of classic good looks, of the athlete who could be a movie star, a case in which Brady finds himself. Rather, it’s a case of looks that don’t fit. There’s a certain novelty to Pekovic’s size, to the awe it strikes in his teammates, and that size and strength have provided the momentum behind his rise to local fame.
He’s the strongest player in the NBA, teammate Derrick Williams keeps insisting. Williams scoffs at the idea of blocking Pekovic in practice. So does Kevin Love, perhaps the most competitive and self-assured player on the Minnesota team. Only fellow 7-footer Darko Milicic is up to the task, and in comparison to Pekovic, he has the frame of a willowy supermodel. Even he probably can’t get the job done.
Just watch as Pekovic tosses weights heavier than a large child around the weight room. It’s terrifying to imagine how much the disc must weigh when it causes him to squint, to screw up his long, bearded face into a knot of effort.
“That guy is hard to stop,” reserve big man Anthony Tolliver said. “When you move your feet like that and you’re 300 pounds, 7 feet, it’s almost impossible to stop him. He’s strong as an ox.”
But behind every surprising success is a limitation, something that at one time blocked a player from stardom. For Lin, it was his Harvard pedigree, his size, perhaps even his nationality. For Freese, it was injuries. For Brady, it was Drew Bledsoe and a rigid hierarchy.
For Pekovic, though, it was the very thing that makes him special, just channeled incorrectly.
Last season, Pekovic was perpetually in foul trouble.
“When we played against him last year, we could almost guarantee that he’d be in foul trouble after two or three minutes,” said Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman, who coached the Rockets last season. “He was just going to foul.”
It was the curse that could have doomed Pekovic to forever come off the bench. But somehow, he overcame it. He’s learned to stay out of the way, and though the possibility of fouls still lurks in the back of his coach’s head — Adelman said he and his staff were concerned about Pekovic against Orlando’s Dwight Howard — the center hasn’t been close to foul trouble since January.
So, no, Pekovic didn’t come out of nowhere. This wasn’t magic or superpowers; this was a player learning to control his game and finally getting the chance to show it.
Pekovic’s path hasn’t been without disappointments, though. Despite having a resume worthy of playing in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend, Pekovic wasn’t selected, and Adelman partially blames himself for not giving the second-year player more minutes after he recovered from an early-season injury. But that’s the difficulty with these upstarts: No one expects them, and, more concerning, no one knows how long they will last.
There’s still a chance Pekovic might get to fill in at the Rising Stars game after the Spurs announced Monday that Tiago Splitter would miss two weeks with a right calf strain. But just hours after that possibility arose, Pekovic sprained his right ankle in Denver by stepping on another player’s foot. Although he said the ankle didn’t hurt initially, and he kept playing, once he sat down on the bench it aggravated and swelled. Though he was able to walk on it postgame and said the injury wasn’t bad, the sprain is the first dose of reality in Minneapolis’ recent “Pektastic” streak, as some are calling it.
Reality was bound to strike soon, and even after the ankle heals, Pekovic’s rise will perhaps slow. He needs to remain out of foul trouble, and he should also improve his passing game. Expectations are rising, and the questions have begun.
How’s your passing ability?
How’s your jump shot?
“I don’t know. . . . I don’t take jump shots so much.”
“Three pointers? I don’t shoot those in my life.”
But that’s the best thing about Pekovic: He may not say much, but he tells it like it is. And don’t be fooled by the terse, clipped answers. He knows what he needs to do. Pekovic may never make a habit of stepping back for 3-point shots, but there’s no reason to doubt he’ll start practicing more jump shots and attempting more passes.
The sprained ankle serves as a reminder that the Timberwolves can’t place all their hopes at center in Pekovic. The 30-point nights might not last, and the word “Pektastic” might someday be forgotten. The team can’t ride the phenomenon forever, but it might just be able to count on him as a solid and effective center for a long time.