What the Timberwolves need from Nikola Pekovic

Jan 6, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) looks to pass against Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) in the first quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 6, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) looks to pass against Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) in the first quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports /

Nikola Pekovic has only played four games since coming back from an Achilles injury, but it is clear that he will still be a focal point in the future of the Timberwolves.

I will openly admit that I have clamored for the Wolves to get rid of Pekovic in some capacity — in fact I’ve done some of that right here on this very site. However, I don’t know that I realized Pek’s true importance to this team until he made his return last week against Denver.

Pekovic most certainly has negatives — most notably his massive contract that was given at least partially in haste after Pekovic’s tremendous 2012-13 campaign. His playing style is, antiquated, if I had to classify it with a specific adjective.

He doesn’t have a vast array of post moves, and he’s not an amazing defender. His main asset lies in his pure brute strength, which gives him an advantage over almost every center in the league.

As much as I could sit here and criticize Pekovic’s contract and archaic play style, I don’t think that’s necessary. In fact, I’ve had a change of heart, so-to-speak, in regards to the big fella. I think he could be a crucial player for the future, and I think he still has a good amount left to give on the floor.

So what do the Wolves need from Pekovic in order to for him to be a valuable player worthy of a roster spot? There are some things I’m sure the Wolves would like to see Pekovic improve on, while also not doing away with his biggest strengths.

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What makes Pekovic a unique NBA player is his frame and strength, which is unmatched by any other NBA player. I think it would be safe to assume that Pek is the strongest player in the league today, and the ability to bully other players down low gives him his biggest asset.

This is something that should never be changed, and I don’t think it’s worth worrying about. Sam Mitchell and the rest of the Wolves coaching staff has been bashed this season for their outdated approach to the Wolves on offense.

While I agree with most of that hoopla, one of the more effective wrinkles the Wolves can use is Pekovic’s unbelievable ability to seal players under the rim. This usually leads to an easy lay-in or a foul, depending on the defender’s recovery time.

No matter how unimaginative this is, it still almost always works. Sam Mitchell has already employed this strategy in Pek’s four games, and it still works like a charm. Here is just one example:

And it’s even easier off of a pick-and-roll as Pek normally gets switched off onto a smaller defender, so that aspect should never change.

There are some things that Pekovic can still improve on which will help the team in the long run. One of these weak points is his defense, most notably on pick-and-rolls. Let’s use the Cleveland game as an illustration of this point.

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The screen is set by Tristan Thompson, and Pek has chosen not to totally hard hedge on LeBron James. My guess would be that his plan was to allow James to shoot off the pick, which would be correct, based on the scouting report.

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However, while Pek soft hedges it leaves a higher opportunity of him getting switched onto LeBron. Obviously, this is probably the last thing you want if your Pek, is a one-on-one match-up with LeBron.

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As expected, James crosses over on Pek and has a clear lane to the bucket. This play ends in Pekovic fouling LeBron. What Pek should have done was hard hedge and use his strength to limit LeBron’s chances of driving, this would, in turn, give Tayshaun Prince time to recover.

This has long been an issue for Pek, and in a league where the pick-and-roll is highly used, the Wolves should want to see improvement in that area.

Another aspect of Pekovic’s game that lags are his post moves. If Pek is not getting a layup from a pick-and-roll or a seal, he’s performing a drop step jump-hook, or something to that effect. Everytime he gets that ball on a post-up on the block he performs the exact same move. Example:

As you can see, not a whole lot of variation, but it’s not like he has bad footwork, so why be so one-dimensional? I think Pekovic could greatly benefit if he added more post moves to his limited arsenal. Defenders will always be expecting the jump-hook, but imagine if he added in a simple up-and-under? He’d score or get fouled every time!

Lastly, I think at some point in the future, Pek may need restructure his deal with the Wolves. There is some wiggle room in the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement for Pek to be paid less over a longer period of time.

I think it’s less about Pek’s abilities, but more about freeing up some money for the team to re-sign their young core, and sign free agents. I’d like to think Pek would understand that, especially if he’s committed to winning in Minnesota.

Nikola Pekovic strikes me as a player who wants to play his entire career in Minnesota, much like Ricky Rubio. The shocking part about that is that Pekovic could become the first player ever to play his entire career with the Timberwolves. I’d like to see that, and I’m sure fans would too, as he is one of the fan favorites.

As the Wolves move towards the future, I think Pekovic can become the veteran leader that Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince are now. Within that role, he could be an instrumental factor in the development of Minnesota’s young core.

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The Wolves should look to see some improvement from Pekovic in the areas I spelled out here. Regardless, I think he will be around for the long haul, and that’s just fine with me, and fans alike.