Player Profile: Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves
It came as no surprise when the news broke that the Minnesota Timberwolves signed a five year, $60 million contract with Nikola Pekovic. There was some wild speculation as to why it took so long for the Timberwolves to finalize the deal but it was always likely that he was going to re-up with the Wolves. Now that it’s certain that Pekovic is returning to Minnesota, let’s review some of strengths as well as one area that needs some improvement heading into his fourth season.
Finishing through Contact
Pekovic could contend for the strongest player in the NBA and he uses this to his advantage in many areas, one of the biggest is which is his ability to ward off contact and finish around the rim. Synergy Sports has 27 And-1 baskets categorized, which averages to 0.43 per game, good for 32nd in the league according to Hoopdata.com.
He can finish through either a body bump from a big man or a reach-in from a smaller guard. If a big man tries to bump him off a spot, he is able to stay under control, absorb the foul and go up for a shot in fairly regular rhythm. If a guard tries to reach in, Pekovic is strong enough where he is able to fight through the contact and take the shot like the guard didn’t even touch him. According to Basketball-Reference, Pekovic shoots 65% on shots at the rim, a majority of which is due to his ability to absorb contact and finish within rhythm.
Another use of Pekovic’s strength is his ability to defend in the post. His 0.72 points per possession allowed ranks 50th in the league for last season and his work before the offensive player catches the ball is a big reason behind his success.
From watching the below clips, take note of the slight bump Pekovic gives the offensive player with his lower body right before the catch is made, to force the post up off the block and a few feet up the lane.
The two frames below show this quite well. The first frame shows Shavlik Randolph with great position on the block as the ball is in the air for the post entry. Simultaneously, Pekovic gives him the lower body bump and Randolph winds up off balance two steps away from his starting position.
By forcing his opponent away from the block, Pekovic has an immediate advantage in the matchup, which is why he is able to be so successful defending post ups. Most offensive players don’t have a move strong enough to beat a defender from this starting position and no offensive player is going to back down Pekovic on a regular basis.
Pekovic isn’t the quickest player, even relative for a big man, so he relies on his strength to gain an advantage. He finds success in forcing his opponent away from their comfort zone and forcing the offensive player to make a tough jump shot or an incredible move to get a good shot.
Areas of Improvement
While Pekovic does a great job of forcing his opponent to an unfavorable starting spot when posting up, he often falls into the same trap on offense. In this case, he seems to passively take the space up the lane instead of using his strength to fight for better position. His post moves and footwork aren’t strong enough to beat the defender from this far away nor does he have a potent face-up jump shot to keep the defender honest.
As highlighted above, Pekovic is great finishing at the rim through contact. If he learns to gain better position regularly when posting up, he will be a tough player to defend. There are few players who will be able to push him off the block, he just needs to focus on taking that spot instead of deferring to a spot a few feet up the lane.
Drop Step Post Move
Despite his poor position shown above, there were a few times when the defense cleared out and let the defender go one on one with Pekovic. A few times Pekovic was able to back down the defender but was unable to finish the play due to a poor drop step. I highlighted two clips that show this from the examples above.
In this frame, Pekovic has backed Andrew Bogut down and has him in prime position to make a move and go around him for the layup. He is set up for the drop step but as we will see from the rest of the clip, he is unable to take advantage of the situation.
To be successful, he needs to take his left foot and put it outside of Bogut’s left foot at the end of his move. This will give him the space to go around Bogut on the baseline and pivot to the right side of the rim.
The below shows Pekovic in the middle of the move and you can begin to see the move fall apart. Bogut has a nice wide base but Pekovic isn’t helping himself by stepping his foot up instead of out toward the baseline. This makes his drop step narrow and unable to obtain the needed position outside of Bogut’s base.
The below shows where Pekovic ends his drop step and it’s clear as to why it is unsuccessful on a regular basis. He covered almost no ground with his drop step and was unable to get around the defender.
Pekovic has the right idea in mind but needs to improve his drop step to make it a wider step to cover more ground. These two clips show a narrow drop step which doesn’t allow him to get his base outside of his defender’s base. If he can improve this, he will be a difficult post player to cover, as his combination of strength and footwork will be tough for any defender.