Over the past few weeks, it has been the play of big man Nikola Pekovic that has help the team go 6-3 in their past nine games. The recent rise of Pekovic (or Pek as he is more affectionately known) has Wolves fans giddy to declare him the team’s center of the future and also relieved to finally close the book on the Darko saga. At age 26, Pekovic has plenty of fuel in his tank to burn and over the past few weeks he has done just that helping propel the Wolves to a number of victories. Like many of the scouting reports that came out of Europe around the time of the 2008 draft, Pek has displayed efficiency, back to the basket scoring, strength, work ethic, offensive rebounding, excellent touch and hands, and an ability to mix it up inside (interpret that however you want) over the past few weeks.
In just his second year in the NBA, Pekovic has displayed an incredible level of efficiency during his time on the court. Not too long ago, Pek was sitting at the end of the bench collecting dust not seeing much time on the floor as he played just four minutes in the teams first 11 games. Darko Milicic’s recent slew of ”injuries” however is all that it took for big Pek to get quality minutes and show how he can contribute to the team’s recent success. To start off, if Pek qualified for the league’s shooting leaderboard, his 63.2% shooting from the field would rank second only behind the Knicks Tyson Chandler (69.7%). Pekovic has posted such a high shooting percentage by taking shots that he is comfortable with and ones he knows that he can make. This is evident in his willingness to take 82% of his shots from the restricted area (three feet or less), a distribution that puts him with Chandler and the Clippers DeAndre Jordan among centers who take a majority of the shots right at the rim. In addition while doing that he is converting on those types of shots 72.1% of the time. To but that into a team perspective, Darko Milicic shoots just 51.9% from the same area of the floor, which is well below the league average for players at his position. Pek knows his strengths and take advantage when the opportunity presents itself.
In terms of rebounding, Pek is about as Jekyll and Hyde as one can get. His 17.1% offensive rebounding rate (ORR) is the best in the entire league right now, but his defensive rebounding rate (DRR) of just 13.5%, which ranks second-worst among all centers. This could be largely caused by Kevin Love grabbing every defensive rebound humanly possible when he is on the floor, so Pek’s numbers seem to take a hit because he does not always have a fair opportunity when Love is down low doing the lion’s share of the defensive rebounding work. With Love sitting out last two games due to a suspension, Pek has collected 19 rebounds, 13 defensive, and has posted a DDR around 18% in those two games. It was only two games, but Pek did an adequate job getting defensive rebounds in Love’s absence, which shows that he is a more capable defensive rebounder then the numbers might lead one to believe. Whatever the explanation is for his rebounding, one thing is obvious when watching Pekovic play. He always get good position around the basket (especially on offense) using his strength, size, and hard work. A concept that fellow center, Darko Milicic has never seemed to grasp.
Another factor that has led to Pek’s efficiency and effectiveness has been his ability to stay on the floor this season. Last year Pek could not stay on the floor for more than two minutes before being whistled for a pair of fouls and immediately relegated to the bench. On per 36 minute basis, Pek average 7.3 fouls last season, one of the worst in the league. This season has been an entirely different story as Pek’s now has a full season of experience under his belt and in addition some better coaching too. He has seen his fouls drop to 4.5 per 36 minutes. Still a high number but a drastic improvement from last season and there is still room for improvement in that area. The fact that the Wolves are 6-2 this season when Pekovic plays 20 minutes or more, means that the more Pek is on the floor, the greater chance the Wolves have to win.
Below is a chart of the top centers over the past 15 games on per 36 minute basis (click to enlarge).
The combination of Pekovic and Love has produced a +92 plus-minus in 217 minutes this season, while the Darko/Love combo has produced a -62 plus-minus in 342 minutes. Below is a chart with the stats of the Rubio-Ridnour-Johnson-Love unit with Darko at center and with Pek in at center (click to enlarge).
So if things pan out correctly and the Wolves truly have found their starting center of future in Pekovic, then Kevin McHale ought to be exonerated to some extent. Remember McHale was at the helm during the 2008 draft that had the Wolves ending up with Love and Pekovic. So if Pek sticks around, McHale theoretically assembled the Wolves frontcourt of future. I guess that ”Big Man Camp” talk this whole time wasn’t a joke.
Derrick’s Shooting Problems
Derrick Williams has really struggled shooting the ball from all over thus far, posting a 43/25/62 shooting line. He has taken over 56% of his shots from outside the restricted area (3 ft and in) this season and is shooting a paltry 24.5% on those shots. Williams has even said that his shooting has been somewhat affected by not playing consistent minutes on nightly basis. However with Kevin Love’s recent suspension, Williams received a bulk of the time at four spot the past two games. Funny, there was no change in his shooting efficiency with extended minutes in those two starts. Over those two games he shot an ironic 56% of his shots outside the restricted area. He converted 90% (9-10) of the shots he took at the rim, which is what you would expect him to do, but he shot just 15.4% (2-13) on shots away from the rim. It was only two games, but it is hard not to believe that Derrick Williams is in a funk, one that does not seem like it can be quickly cured by giving him extended minutes.
Williams needs to quit his whining on Twitter and posting messages like the one he posted after a Timberwolves victory over Houston last Saturday, a game in which Williams played just 14 minutes.
Anybody ever felt like a caged lion?—
Derrick Williams (@RealDwill7) February 05, 2012
Well he was uncaged this week and did not really show much for Rich Adelman to keep promising him significant minutes right now. Granted he was the number two pick in the draft and is only seeing 18 minutes a game his frustration makes sense. But clearly Adelman doesn’t care about that right now, he wants guys who are going to produce on a night-in and night-out basis, not guys who are going to go out there and go through the motions. At times Williams looks as lost out there on offense as anybody, showing hesitation moving without the ball. It’s simple for Williams, make your shots and you will receive more playing time (See: Nikola Pekovic). So quit complaining on twitter whether you are mad at yourself or at how the coach is handling playing time, do something about it. Make your shots.
Regression Toward the Mean
It has been almost a month now since Ricky Rubio was inserted into the starting lineup leading the Wolves to a 10-6 as a starter opposed to a 3-7 record coming off the bench. However Rubio shooting has faded as the season has gone on (see graph below). The wedding and honeymoon are over for Rubio and his shooting as he is now shooting just 37.8% from the field and has sort of plateaued around the 36-40% area, which is one of the lowest shooting percentages among starting point guards.
Even though Rubio’s shooting numbers have regressed, he has shot better when the money is on the line in the fourth quarter this season. He is shooting 42% (34-82) from the field and 45% from threes in the fourth quarter and in the clutch (five minutes or less when the scoring margin is less than five points), Rubio is shooting 47% (9-19) and 67% from deep (4-6). Rubio is young and has plenty of time to still develop a consistent shot so this shooting regression should not be a major concern or a surprise. Rubio will likely get better over the years, working on his shot and having a better shot selection. Rubio did spend countless hours this summer in Los Angeles working on his shooting. Remember he shot just 31% from the field (22% from three) in the Euroleague last year, so even with this decline there still has been some improvement in his shooting game.