Nikola Pekovic taking bite out of NBA rookie season

Nikola Pekovi: The dentist will see you now.
Nikola Pekovi: The dentist will see you now.

Had Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic not eventually set his sights on a life in pro basketball back home in his native Montenegro, he might have been dribbling a different career tune--in a dentist's office.

"I started to play later than most guys. I started to play when I was 15," Pekovic recalled of his upbringing. "I go to medical school...for teeth. For dental. I'm making these fake teeth, you know." 

Can you imagine a 6'-10'', 290-lbs. bearded brute with a saber-totting warrior tattooed upon his left bicep coming toward your awaiting mouth with a mirror and a drill?

Talk about your little shop of horrors.

Well, the dentistry world's loss had proven basketball's gain. Selected by Kevin McHale and the Wolves with the 31st pick (first selection of the second round) in the 2008 draft, Pekovic opted to play two seasons with Panathinaikos of the Greek League before signing a three-year, $13 million deal to come to Minnesota this summer past. Had his formidable Euro contract not scared off NBA execs, many draft experts had the center as a potential lottery pick and a sure first-rounder in that draft of yore.

Pekovic's success in Greece (where his club won an '09 Euro League title) segued from his impressive run through overseas hoop. Prior to that title and being concurrently honored with a first-team All-Euro selection, Pekovic was a part of three Serbian League Championships and two Adriatic League title winners.

His mantle won't be cluttered with any T-Wolves hardware anytime soon, but the late bloomer is making a stated claim for this honor: He may soon prove the finest center ever drafted by the Timberwolves.

Pekovic has started just six of his 50 games this season, but the 25-year-old NBA rookie has proven effective in both bench and starting roles. Atypical among Euro big men who are oftentimes known for a silky shooting touch, Pekovic is a bullish paint presence. As predicted by Wolves assistant general manager Tony Ronzone at the onset of the season, Pekovic's physical style generally finds him filling up the stat sheet with fouls (2.8 per game in 13.5 minutes played on average). However, his scoring/rebounding contributions and fine field goal percentage more than offset the consistency of the whistles blown in his formidable direction. He credits former NBA'er Predrag Drobnjak (who hails from the same hometown) with helping him acclimate to the Western game.

"He told me about everything," Pekovic says of Drobnjak.  "He was older than me when he came out, like 26 or 27.  He told me what to expect about games, people. He just said, 'It's nothing similar to Europe.' Basically, whenever I see something, whenever I go somewhere I just remember what he said and what he told me."

Pekovic entered Monday night versus Dallas shooting at .513 percent for the season, which charts as 34th best in the league for those with at least 50 games played. In the three games he spelled Darko Milicic in the starting lineup in early February, he readily amped up his seasonal averages, accounting for 27 points and 22 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the field in 70 combined minutes. When Milicic missed three recent games to tend to the arrival of a new daughter, Pekovic started thrice more before Darko's Monday return, compiling 31 points and 10 rebounds on 72 percent shooting in 52 combined minutes. 

Pekovic owns neither the scoring touch nor blocking ability of Milicic--but over the course of the season he's evidenced a steady acclimation to the NBA and given the Wolves a paint intimidation that Milicic has always lacked. His maturation may soon find him making more of those starting appearances.

At this stage of our hoop season, with the playoffs a lexicon of the opposition and ensuing draft prospects proving a more engaging discussion point than many of those on the roster present, we are left searching for seasonal positives beyond Kevin Love's ridiculous, 51-game streak of consecutive doubles-doubles.

Count Pekovic's debut among the few lauds of which this bunch is worthy. Lack of opportunity hasn't afforded him floor time to author many big performances, but bite-by-bite he's making McHale look wise for what many viewed as an obscure selection.

"You always can do better," Pekovic said of his approach, whether in the starting five or coming off the Wolves bench. "Whatever you do, you can do better."

Let us hope his teammates collectively brush with those same bristles.


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