MINNEAPOLIS – Nikola Pekovic is Rick Adelman’s best student.
Adelman says it, Adelman needs it, Pekovic does it. That’s become the theme of the Timberwolves’ big man’s breakout season this year, as he’s been the only player to truly capitalize on the opportunities he was given. And, as Adelman pointed out Sunday, he’s also one of few players on the team who’s come back strong from an injury this season. You’re never sure who you’re going to get when a player comes back from being hurt, Adelman said recently, but Pekovic has convinced his coach and teammates that nothing has changed since he returned from a bout with bone spurs in his ankle and bronchitis.
“He’s been solid right on through, even after when he came back after his injury,” Adelman said. “He was slowed a little bit, but right now he’s playing like he was before.”
The “slowed” Pekovic who Adelman described has nevertheless averaged 14.5 points and 6.9 rebounds since returning on April 2, down from 17.4 points and 8.5 rebounds in March. His scoring is still up from his season average of 13.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, and Pekovic has looked like the breakout player he was in February in recent games.
Against Detroit on Thursday, Pekovic scored 23 points – good for just more than a quarter of the team’s 91 total points – and he was the Timberwolves’ leading scorer on Sunday with 19 points. That’s notable for a healthy player, and the fact that Pekovic is doing it while suffering the lingering effects of those bone spurs, delaying surgery until the offseason, makes it all the more remarkable. It also suggests that he should be able to return strong next season, which will be crucial in the team’s next attempt at a playoff run.
“I think he’s had a great year and gives us a lot of hope at that position for the future,” Adelman said.
Pekovic’s name has entered the conversation for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, and looking back at the list of players who’ve received the honor in recent years, it’s hard to find anyone who went from unknown to the league’s sixth-best scoring center in the matter of a few months. The award doesn’t guarantee future success – just look at past winners like Aaron Brooks – and Pekovic may not end up as this year’s recipient, but to enter that conversation is a major feat for someone who just last season averaged only 5.5 points and 3.0 rebounds.
Pekovic may not have gotten the recognition he deserved on a national platform this season – no All-Star invite, ridiculous plays on his last name that stuck only in Minnesota – but that snub matters little in the face of what he’s done for the Timberwolves this season. Without Pekovic, they’d still likely be relying on Darko Milicic, who seems to have lost his will to play. Otherwise, the position would have belonged to Brad Miller, a 36-year-old veteran who’s slowed after offseason microfracture surgery on his knee, or been a tag-team effort between the unpredictable Derrick Williams and Anthony Tolliver.
None of those options sound ideal, but going into this season, Pekovic was something of a nonfactor in the team’s game plan. To think that those options might have been more realistic than the 7-footer whom the team and its fans have come to love shows just how much difference a few months can make. However, a quick conversation with Pekovic reveals that he has something beyond just physical skills that pushed him into the position he’s in today.
He wants it. He wants to win, to compete, to play basketball to the extent of his abilities, and he can’t imagine feeling any other way.
“I mean, everybody wants to win,” Pekovic said. “That’s why we play basketball. That’s why we are doing this, everything with the sport. If you don’t want to play basketball, if you don’t want to win, go work at the office. Sit at a table and do whatever.”
The Timberwolves didn’t need flash this season. They didn’t need a celebrity phenomenon. In the face of injuries that were eventually the team’s knockout blow, they needed stability. They needed a workhorse, and that’s what they got in Pekovic. As Adelman said repeatedly, the opportunities were there all season for role players to transition into larger presences, and Pekovic was the only member to the team to do so. He’s the sole player who won a starting role midseason through hard work rather than through injuries or a lack of alternatives – see: Martell Webster – and he’s been rewarded with the dedication of a fan base.
On Sunday night, just after Pekovic had completed a three-point play to give Minnesota a one-point lead with 1:28 remaining in the game, the Timberwolves called a timeout. A minute later, as the teams took the court, the Jumbotron flashed to Pekovic, the beard and the tattoos and the towering height, as if to suggest he might be the team’s best shot. It was in part because of Kevin Love’s absence, but was regardless an acknowledgement of all he’s become to Minnesota in just a short period of time.