If there is one player that is more polarizing than Ricky Rubio on the Timberwolves this year, it would be Nikola “The Godfather” Pekovic. I mean, he might just be big enough to have his own gravitational pull and magnetic field … get it … “polarizing”? … all right, I’m probably stretching it … but it is still funny to think of how much he’d tower over big tough 5’9″ Marlon Brando and surly little 5’7″ Al Pacino.
While injuries have held his skull-collecting career back, The Godfather is the incumbent starting center for this Twolves squad. For this reason, his files fill out the starting five for this the 2015 edition of the roster review. While we have no clue as to when he will be ready to see the hardwood after Achiles surgery, I believe it is safe to say, that when he returns to the court, he would play a “large role”.
So here we enter into The God Father’s files, to review his history as a vicious skull collector, and to evaluate the quality of weapons he possesses in his arsenal. Among those, but not technically basketball related, are incredible tattoos, menacing widow’s peaks, and the terrifying features of a Superman Villain.
Then of course, he becomes immensely less terrifying in these two comedic team videos, while instructing people know how to pronounce his name, and sharing which holiday meal is his favorite:
Then, he looks completely gentle when babysitting two-dimensional children.
But now, on to more basketball relevant details. The first and most prevalent weapon in Pek’s arsenal is the quality of…
Having Huge Muscles
We all know that Nikola Pekovic does not only look like a tough guy, but he is, in fact, a tough guy. He’s huge. He has a level of strength that is not often found in the NBA. I think, when he’s on the court, (literally, when his feet are on the ground), I dare say his physical presence is as daunting as Shaq.
Now don’t get me wrong, Shaq had skills and athleticism that are far more dominant that Pekovic. Much of that has to do with the way that Shaq could play above the rim along with his size. Still, if we could go back in time and pin Pek and Shaq against each other in an arm-wrestling competition or some other display of brute strength, it would be quite the spectacle. And I’m not sure, if I were a betting man, who I would place my money on.
With regard to Peks strength, one of my favorite NBA interview moments came in a game when the Twolves took on the Lakers back in the 2011-12 season. A reporter pulled Andrew Bynum aside to ask him some questions about a solid half for the Lakers. Here is his paraphrased quote:
“I’m glad they took that Pekovic guy out. That guy’s real strong!”
Next to Pekovic, Andrew Bynum is one of the biggest and strongest guys who have set foot on an NBA court in the past decade. This level of strength can be used to great reward on the basketball court. Of course, that leads to:
Using Muscles on Offense
The amount of times Nikola Pekovic has sealed an NBA center in the low post is staggering. Some games it appears he can get there whenever he wants to. Pek has an enduring strength that wears down the opposition with his enormous immovable presence. This allows him to get in great position for beefy-arm hook shots, or muscle up shots through contact to get to the line.
Pek’s strength is also beneficial when boxing out. His presence is tough to get around, and if he maintains that low post position, missed shots have a tendency to fall to him. When he sets screens, it opens up tons of room a ball handler or cutter to operate. He forces defenders to deviate so far from their initial target that if he ever teamed up with a great shooter off the dribble, NBA defenses would have hell to pay. These screens, and the next weapon listed below, combine to make Pek quite a threat as a roll man.
Quick Hands and Feet
While Pek is not a vertical athlete, he shows surprisingly quick feet for man of his size. This can be shown by the post moves he’s developed. He pivots and spins with the best of them down on the block. Just watch what he does in this video against Tim Duncan:
Also, when he is healthy he shows his great feet running the floor. For such a large man, Pek has solid endurance and a great top speed. While it will not happen often, there’s not many things more fun than seeing big Pek finish off a fast break with a slam or a lay in.
I still think Pek’s most underrated skill has to do with his hands. Nikola Pekovic has an uncanny ability to snatch up loose balls. Shouldn’t it be more difficult for a guy who is so big to get down to floor level to snatch up the rock? Nonetheless, Pek does this time and time again. Occasionally, these quick hands and feet even show themselves on defense. The video below shows one of those times.
You don’t often see a huge Center who specializes in low post offense make this kind of play. It’s an undeniably athletic play. Sure it’s not flashy or smooth, but it’s still athletic. You have to be athletic enough to hustle effectively. Especially in the NBA. In this play, Pek out hustles a player in Chuck Hayes, who built a whole NBA career around hustling and making the right play. The next weapon in Pek’s arsenal is also one atypical of his bruiser mold:
Reliable Free-Throw Shooting
Ever since hack-a-shaq came into play, the NBA has dealt with teams taking advantage of players who can’t make their freebees. Along with his surprising foot speed, Nikola Pekovic’s free-throw shooting ability might be his most surprising trait. He may play like a rock in the post, but he has soft touch from the line. He’s not a world class free-throw shooter, but he is extremely solid for an NBA big. This creates a difficult decision for opposing teams when he gets such great position in the post. Fouling him will generally result in two points as well, and due to his incredible strength, he can muscle through even the hardest of fouls, potentially creating an and-one opportunity. Of course, its always better to force a guy to earn points at the line, but it is entirely more valuable to a team, when a big guy can actually make a defense pay for taking away layups.
This shooting touch also extends his game out to mid-range. While you will never see him looking for that mid-range shot, he can be quite consistent from that range. Pek has even been known to drain threes in practice and shoot around, even so much for Pau Gasol to make note of this during European competitions.
This ability gives Pek an every-once-in-a-while weapon. While it would be awesome to see Pek pick and fade and hit a wing three, chances are, he’ll keep rolling to the rim and posting up. This brings me to last weapon I find in Pek’s arsenal:
At the beginning of his career he seemed to have one main objective: muscle players into the post to put the ball in the basket. Pek has now developed some great instincts as a passer. This skill can be extremely dangerous with the right players on the court. Think about what Dwight Howard was able to do with the Orlando Magic years ago. They loaded the court with shooters on the perimeter, and consistently fed the ball into Dwight in the post. They relied on Dwight to distribute from there, taking full advantage of when the defense sent a guy to double. They played their best when Dwight did a good job balancing when to attack the defense down low and when to pass out.
When Pekovic gets on a roll down low, he demands a double team. While in this day and age, there’s a theory that a team doesn’t need a true post presence, I think with how deep of position Pek can get he can still fit in with a modern perimeter offense. Pek has also impressed with his passing out of the high post. He’s made some great dishes to players cutting to the basket. I feel that when big men are willing and able passers, this really helps an offense flow. The truth about most sports is that the ball moves faster than the players. The San Antonio Spurs and the German Men’s National Soccer team have definitely proved that to be true. By making crisp quick passes Pek can become a weapon with quickness, something that he is not as capable of physically. Also, with the combination of this budding passing skill and his mid-range shooting touch. The mid to high post should be a remarkably high efficiency spot for Pekovic, however, he does have his:
For Nikola Pekovic, the weapons in his arsenal listed above are quite powerful, and when available, they are highly valuable to an NBA basketball team. He’s the big dawg of the wolf pack. He’s the battering ram. He’s the team’s on-court body guard. But lately, he’s looked more like Glenn Taylor’s personal body guard.
IF Pek can get on the court, he is a force to be reckoned with: a 6’11”, 290+ lbs force. Unfortunately, he and his $12 Mil contract doesn’t help the team when he’s acting as Mr. Taylor’s body guard. While his feet are quick, they are also fragile. He might be the toughest looking guy in the world that could ever be directly related to glass slippers. But I mean no disrespect. I have bad feet and ankles and I’m not even 150lbs. With his size and weight, it’s clear that these nagging injuries have limited him even when he was on the court.
I remember watching the 2008 NBA draft, when the Twolves drafted Pekovic with the first pick of the second round. The highlights that they showed included quick steps to the rim for dunks, and a massive human being moving with impressive speed and grace. The following video shows fresh leg Pekovic when he played for Partisan Belgrade, a team of which Pekovic was recently instated as President. (Turns out when his former team was having financial trouble, Pek offered to help and got the flashy new title! … the big teddy bear!) While the video doesn’t show a vastly different level of athleticism, he does appear more comfortable and confident on his feet. Plus, this voice over commentary is simply hilarious.
While Pek has had great moments for the Wolves when healthy, he provides absolutely no verticality. Even in Europe Pek was not known as a defensive big man, and as a Twolf, Pek has always been tentative to get off his feet. Pek is not the rim protector the Twolves need. He’s the rim protector the Twolves deserve. Wait … what am I saying? Maybe is the rim protector the Twolves have deserved, but now I do think the Twolves deserve better. While Minneapolis has had its missteps as a basketball city, is certainly not the Gotham of the NBA. In this day and age, it’s simply essential to have one or more bigs in an NBA rotation be a solid rim protector. The Wolves have not had a solid rim protector since KG part 1.
The truth is, even with Pek’s quick feet for a big man, he still can’t stay in front of many NBA players, and while he has quick hands that give him the ability to reach, this often leads to fouls. This was extremely evident when Pek entered the league. He struggled adjusting to the NBA whistle blowers, and the more the whistles blow upon a player, the quicker that player sits on the bench.
Pek is also held back by his sheer size. I compare this to what LeBron James went through in the post season. When LBJ would go into the lane like a charging bull, he sought contact, and drew contact much in the same was as James Harden or Kevin Martin. The difference being when LeBron and Pekovic initiate contact, they leave ripples on the court. LeBron and Nikola are at a level of size, strength and apparent imperviousness, that not only does the level of contact they create get accentuated, but the level of contact they draw seems to be significantly negated. Many times Pek has had guys draped all over him and though the complete effort of a defender is going into inhibiting him from raising his right arm, no whistle gets blown for the contact.
Offensively, Peks shooting percentage, while pretty high, still leaves something to be desired. It seems that a player who has such a soft free-throw stroke, and has the ability to consistently get into great position in the low post, would be more effective from 3-10 feet. Check out Pek’s shooting statistics over the last few years. (Basketball reference really provides an impressive amount of detail with regard to shooting.)
The fact that Pek’s percentage from 3-10 feet is basically Rubioian, is disconcerting. How can a guy have that good of a stroke from the charity stripe and have so much trouble putting the ball in from eight feet? This is odd.
Taking everything into an account, there are lot of variables when it comes to Pek’s value as a member of the Twolves.
Healthy Pek: A-
For an NBA center, when Nikola Pekovic is on the court, he is productive. He plays his role as a bruiser and, especially when his scoring is on point, he can really help the team’s offense roll. For a while, I felt like Pek could have been the Twolves number one option on offense. That is when he started making plays in the low post, he drew double teams which freed up other players. He simply gets too good of position not to give him the ball. When Pek is on offensively, there’s not much that’s going to stop him. Here’s an example:
This video shows that when Pek is healthy he can dominate even one the best front courts in basketball. Pek can bring this kind of production anytime. He had made it evident that, even considering his limitations, he is a viable go-to offensive option.
Including limitations: B/B-
While some theories have be made, suggesting that Pek should come off the bench and play less minutes I’m not sure he fits that mold. He’s kind of like Kevin Martin in this way. In order for Pek’s skills to best benefit a team he needs to dominate on the offensive side of the ball. K-Mart needs to see the court and get touches. Pek is much the same. While I think it’s positive to think that limiting his playing time would give his feet more time to rest, the less he plays the more outlandish his salary becomes. I guess as a scoring bruiser of the bench, if he played 20+ minutes a game against mostly second team bigs, he would certainly still be productive. But is that enough? I think it could be, but I’m not certain if in that role, Pek is the best guy to be getting those touches.
Rebounding, sheer strength and his scoring skills make him a decent NBA center. His hustle, uncanny ability to run the floor, and growing ability as a passer lift his value higher. If Pek’s level of ability translated better to his level to efficiency, then he’d be right up there with the best of the best of NBA centers.
This is the danger of potential. Potential doesn’t just belong to the young player. Players have the potential to be great and the potential to get hurt.
An assumption fans might make while considering Pek’s value to the wolves, is that he fails to fit the current mold of the franchise. It’s true that he’s not going to be jumping out of the gym guys, and that he isn’t what Flip Saunders would call a two way player, but offensively, he does fit the mold in the terms of relentlessly running the floor and being physically imposing.
What is encouraging with a guy like Pek, is that he’s finally looking like he’ll be paired up with a suitable rim protector when he is on the court. KG, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng and even Adreian Payne, all have rim protecting skill sets. This, along with the rest of the teams focus on defense should help diminish the effect of Pek’s lack of defensive production.
Nonetheless, Pek is still a hobbled big man, and leg/foot injuries for big don’t have a history of great prognosis for healing. To me, this sucks. I want to see Pek succeed in Minnesota as much as anyone. I feel, like Rubio, that he’s a guy who enjoys being here. He wants to play ball in Minneapolis, and has frequently reported that he’s gone out ice fishing during off nights during the season. This is a guy that Minnesota fans have to cheer for.
So here’s to hope that newly hired Arnie Kander may be able to use his unique methods to help Pek return and remain on the floor. After all, it’s always good to have the Godfather around to protect the family.