Pekovic aims to stay healthy, productive this season
This is the 15th in a 17-part series profiling each player on the Timberwolves' roster leading up to training camp.
An NBA history crossroads, embodied in 6 feet, 11 inches and 280 pounds of brute, eastern European force.
In terms of style, Nikola Pekovic ranks among the old-school. His thick frame and soft hands render him a traditional low-post scorer and rebounder, a dying breed in a league with more and more big men who can step out and hit long shots but sacrifice size down low.
But the mammoth Montenegrin's presence as one of the game's best centers wasn't as likely 15 years ago. A new focus on international scouting, latched upon by the likes of David Kahn and other past Timberwolves personnel gurus, has afforded guys like Pekovic the opportunity to showcase their talent on the world's biggest basketball stage.
After an offseason where his future served as the hot topic among Twin Cities basketball circles, the throwback-yet-modern-day big man is back.
Minnesota's climb from the depths of irrelevancy rests largely upon Pekovic's wide, mountainous shoulders.
2012-13 stats: 16.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 31.6 MPG, 62 GP, 52 FG PCT
2013 salary: $12,100,000
Last year: Perhaps the brightest silver lining to the Timberwolves' injury-plagued campaign was Pekovic's emergence as a prime scoring target. He'd shown the ability to rock the rim on occasion his first two years in the league, but with power forward Kevin Love sidelined most of the year, Pekovic received more touches.
He made the most of them.
Pekovic's 52-percent clip from the field ranked 20th in the league and eighth among fulltime centers. He doesn't have much range, but his athleticism, footwork and muscle allow him to overpower block defenders and finish efficiently. The same goes for rebounding, at both ends of the floor.
He was fairly reliable from the free-throw line, too. His 74.4-percent mark ranked fifth among fives in 2012-13.
A restricted free agent this past summer, Pekovic's performance was more than enough to rank him as Minnesota's No. 1 offseason priority. More than a month of haggling earned him a lucrative, five-year, $60 million contract.
The maximum-length deal also includes an incentives bundle. It's highly likely staying healthy will earn him more coin; Pekovic missed 20 games last year and has missed at least 17 each of his first three NBA seasons.
His defense is also a concern. Other than simply using his big frame to get in the way, he's not the prototypical rim protector balanced defensive teams require. For that reason, the Timberwolves drafted Gorgui Dieng and signed free agent Ronny Turiaf.
This year: For all his physical prowess and accomplishments, the 27-year-old Pekovic enters training camp shrouded by one central question.
Can he continue to produce with Love back in the lineup?
There won't be as many entry passes thrown his way with one of the league's premier power forwards back in the fold. That makes it imperative for Pekovic to produce when he goes get the ball.
But don't expect a wholesale demotion on the offensive end. Point guard Ricky Rubio has an uncanny knack for finding whichever teammate has the hot hand and grew well-attuned to Pekovic's habits and positioning last year.
Pekovic also will be counted on to create some of his own chances off offensive rebounds. He averaged a career-high 3.7 of those per game last season.
His most prominent goal, though, remains to stay on the floor. As long as his oft-sore calves and the rest of his lumbering body hold up, he'll be allowed to continue his ascent to the top of the league's true-center heap.
And he just might carry his team, which hasn't been to the playoffs since 2004, along with him.
From the front office: "You solidified the center position, which is a position that's a very tough position to solidify in the NBA. Not many centers have the ability to score in the low post, and he's one of the best if not the best in the league at doing that. We know he's a great rebounder and has great ability to finish off of passes from (Ricky) Rubio." -- Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders
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