Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The "Pek"ing Order

By Joey Cavalier

Timberwolves fans have a lot to be excited about. The passing ninja that is Ricky Rubio, the development of Kevin Love, and an improved team defense have the fan base in a state of positivity and hope. But perhaps the most underrated storyline to this season has been the emergence of the Montenegrin center, Nikola Pekovic.

If there was such thing as a “NBA Bar Fight Draft,” Pekovic would be a lock as a top 3 pick. The European is listed at 6’11, 290 lbs. He’s got wicked ink, he looks like a hammerhead shark, runs like a duck, and plays like a bull. In his second season, “Pek” is emerging as a viable option at a position that has troubled the Wolves for nearly a decade. The Wolves haven’t had a capable center since the days of Rasho Nesterovic; and he wasn’t exactly greatness at the center position.

The Timberwolves drafted Pekovic in 2008 with the 31st overall selection. He was widely considered a top ten pick at the time, but his contract situation caused him to slide into the second round. Pek finally made his debut with the Wolves last season, averaging 5.5 PTS, and 3 REB in 13.6 minutes per game. In limited playing time, Pekovic flashed potential, but didn’t play well enough to be viewed as a legitimate option at the center position.

Now, in his second season, Pekovic is flashing his talents nightly, and beginning to show the league why he was considered a top ten talent. In the Wolves’ last seven games, he has averaged 14.1 PTS, 9.3 REB (5.4 of those being offensive rebounds), and 26.35 minutes per game. During this stretch he has shot 63% from the field, and 73% from the free throw line. Pekovic has been solid, and is showing that he is capable of playing alongside of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love in the starting lineup.

Pekovic has been a major factor in the Timberwolves ascent to .500. It is clearer than ever that Darko Milicic is not the long-term answer for this team at center. Given his size and skill-set, Pekovic has a chance to step up and play a crucial role on this team.

Let’s take a look at the things Pekovic does well:

Offensive Glass- Pekovic has been a beast on the offensive glass. In the last seven games, he has averaged 5.4 ORB per game! Over the course of the season, he is averaging 3.3 ORB (and that’s with only playing an average of 18.9 minutes per game), while Darko is only averaging a meager 1.5 ORB per game in a similar amount of playing time. In his strength, Pekovic establishes position near the rim, and understands where he needs to be when Wes Johnson is clanking his shots off of the back of the rim.

Offensive Efficiency- Pekovic has been very efficient offensively. He is shooting 61% from the field on the season. Also, he is bullying his way to the free-throw line, and is shooting 73% from the stripe. But the thing that is most impressive about Pek, is his ability to play with his back to the hoop. He is great in the low post, he knows where he is on the court, and knows the right move to make to get to the basket for an easy shot. He attacks the rim (unlike Darko) and provides the nasty scoring that this team needs. Unlike Pekovic, Darko is not very efficient offensively. He is currently shooting 43% from the field, and 45% from the free throw line. He has a habit of getting lost on the floor and heaving up a series of bad shots. Darko doesn’t possess the quality of offense or the consistency that this team needs from the center position.

Running the Floor- When Pek runs up and down the floor, one cannot help but laugh at how painfully awkward he looks. However, he runs the floor very well. He may look like he has webbed feet, yet he is displaying above average speed, and the type of hustle needed to get to the other end of the court. Also, his quickness and hustle has allowed him to excel in the Wolves’ pick-and-roll offense. Darko is certainly athletic enough to run the floor well, but his lack of motivation is clear, and in turn his quickness and hustle suffers.

Toughness- Ever since the Kevin Garnett era, the Wolves frontcourt has been about as soft as a bag of cotton balls. Pek contributes a gritty, physical style of play. Sometimes it gets him into foul trouble, but overall, that is what you ask for out of your center. Defensively, he is able to hold his own. He doesn’t block a lot of shots, but he is strong enough to keep players out of the paint and is quick enough to defend players away from the basket. In contrast, Darko is not a very “tough” player. He can block shots, but he lets way too many players waltz into the paint for easy buckets. And overall, Darko does not have the attitude of toughness that Pekovic possesses.

Pekovic could have a very bright future in this league. Obviously, he will never be in the same category as Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum. But if he continues to improve, he will be a force to be reckoned with. It is time for the Timberwolves to move on from Darko (aka “Manna from Heaven”) Milicic and give Pek the starting job. He definitely has the skill-set and the upside to prosper as a starting center in this league.

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