Timberwolves International Players, Pre-NBA: Nikola Pekovic

Jan 27, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) dribbles in the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (11) at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 27, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) dribbles in the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (11) at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /

The Timberwolves have had rosters with international flavor in many of their most recent seasons, and 2016-17 is no different.

The road to the NBA for American basketball talents seems to be fairly similar: high school, college, pros.

There are some exceptions to the rule, of course, like Kevin GarnettKobe Bryant and LeBron James, who all entered the league straight from high school, but these are unique examples.

So, what if you’re an international player?

Well, in such cases, the pathway to the NBA is often a little bit different. Surely, with the number of international players in the league rapidly increasing, more and more talents from overseas decide to follow the same procedure by also attending colleges in the U.S.

This way, their chances of being spotted by the NBA scouts improve. However, many current international players in the NBA got there through a different route: by first proving their worth in Europe (or other continents). Such examples include the likes of Pau GasolDirk NowitzkiTony Parker, and others.

This series of articles will, present the early careers of current international Timberwolves players and how they got where they are now.

We started of with a piece about Ricky Rubio and today we continue the series with Nikola Pekovic.

Youth Level and Competition

Unlike Rubio, Pekovic didn’t really become a formidable player in his youth national team until 19 years of age.

In 2005 and 2006, Nikola played for Serbia and Montenegro’s under-20 (U-20) squad, bringing home bronze and gold medals, respectively. An interesting fact here is that 2006 was the last year during which Serbia and Montenegro still existed as one country. Had Pekovic been born a year later, his last U-20 championship with Montenegro would have taken place in Division B, playing against considerably weaker teams.

Although Pekovic wasn’t as dominant in U-20s as Rubio had been in U-16s the same year, Nikola was a valuable member of both medal-winning teams in 2005 and 2006. He consistently averaged 11.6 points both times and his rebounding averages were 9.1 and 6.0, respectively.

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The depth of Serbian youth at the time was scarily impressive. Just three players from 2005 and two from the 2006 winning teams managed to reach the top pro-levels. However, even after the separation of Serbia and Montenegro, Serbians went on to win two more consecutive championships in 2007 and 2008. These teams included current Serbian internationals and well-known players like Milos Teodosic, former Timberwolf Miroslav Raduljica, and Detroit’s Boban Marjanovic.

From Zero to Hero

There is a very interesting coincidence looking back to the Montenegrin’s performances at U20 level. Both times, Pekovic started off the championships by not scoring a single point in the first match and leaving the court with a negative player efficiency rating (PER).

However, Pekovic delivered when it actually counted. Both times, he managed to play his best basketball during the very last games of the tournament. In 2005 this helped Serbia and Montenegro win bronze.

In 2006, Pekovic was the best player in the final with 18 points (on a splendid 89 percent FG) and eight rebounds, carrying his team to victory over Ersan Ilyasova‘s Turkey.

National Squad

1 Major Tournament – 5 Games

In contrast to his youth international career, Pekovic didn’t manage to achieve much with the senior national team of Montenegro.

Part of the reason, of course, is that Montenegro is far from being a powerhouse in European basketball. There are only three more notable players from Montenegro — all named Nikola and all big men.

One of them is Pekovic. Another is Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic, who doesn’t even play for his home country, most likely because Spain’s national team is much stronger and you actually have a great shot at winning tournaments.

The last one, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, is the only one of the three who consistently plays for the country. In fact, this summer he was the team’s leader, helping it to qualify for Eurobasket 2017.

Another reason for lack of accolades with the senior team is that partly due to injuries and partly due to other reasons (such as contract negotiations with NBA teams), Pekovic hasn’t played much for his country. His only major tournament wearing the red shirt was Eurobasket 2011, during which Montenegro didn’t survive the first round. They only won one game out of five, Pekovic had decent, but not too impressive individual numbers, scoring 13 points and grabbing 6.4 rebounds per contest.

If Pekovic managed to get out of his injury cycle and remained healthy, his duo with Vucevic could be one of the best in Europe. Together, they would have a much better chance of helping Montenegro to actually get in the mix of the strongest European squads.

However, with Pekovic’s injury history, even if he is healthy, it’s not likely that the Timberwolves (or Nikola himself) will want to take the risk of playing for the national team in the summer/early autumn.

Related Story: International Players Before The NBA: Ricky Rubio

Serbia, Greece & Euroleague

The Rise – Partizan Belgrade

Having started his career in the Serbian premier team at the time, Pekovic struggled at first.

Similarly to his first season in the NBA, Pekovic averaged just shy of six points per contest over his first two years in the Euroleague. He wasn’t a really important figure on the team, either, averaging 15.8 minutes per game.

However, things changed dramatically in the third campaign, the 2007-08 season. He managed to guide his team to victory in the Adriatic Cup (a domestic championship for teams from several ex-Yugoslavian countries), winning the Final Four MVP along the way.

In addition, his efficiency in the Euroleague skyrocketed — Pekovic tripled his scoring and doubled his rebounding averages with 16.4 and 6.9, respectively. His extremely productive performances eventually earned him a spot in the All-Euroleague second team and helped Partizan reach quarterfinals.

The Entrenchment – Panathinaikos Athens

While Partizan was the best team in the ex-Yugoslavian region, it was never a title contender in the Euroleague. Small countries such as Serbia, Lithuania, Croatia or Slovenia can be extremely strong title-contenders in every world or European championship as national teams.

However, their club teams don’t have the finances needed to build a team, able to overcome the status of an average squad in Euroleague’s standards. Pekovic needed the transition to a higher level and Panathinaikos was definitely one of the best options for that at the time.

Playing for a significantly stronger team, Pekovic’s minutes dropped, although his efficiency remained high. This, of course, had a lot to do with the fact that the Montenegrins played with some of the very best European guards in the history of the game: Greeks Vassilis Spanoulis, Dimitris Diamantidis and Lithuanian Šarūnas Jasikevičius. That season’s Panathinaikos was probably one of the best ever in two-on-two basketball, especially on offense.

Averaging 13 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, Pekovic was among the major factors in helping Panathinaikos win the Euroleague. That season, in 2008-09, the center also made the cut for the All-Euroleague first team.

2009-10 season was even slightly better for Pekovic individually, however, the team’s performance in the Euroleague was a disaster.

Not only didn’t they manage to defend the title, Panathinaikos failed to even reach the quarterfinals. Eventually they succeeded in winning another domestic championship, beating Euroleague runner-ups and main rivals Olympiakos.

Next: This Is Andrew Wiggins' Year

However, that marked the end to Pekovic’s career in Greece and the start to his NBA journey.