MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It took some time for the Montenegrin train to get rolling.
Nikola Pekovic spent the first month of the season trying to find his way after signing a monster contract this summer. The big center had to adjust to Kevin Love's return from injury and Kevin Martin's addition in free agency, all while trying to play catch-up after having to take it easy in offseason workouts while negotiating his new deal.
The numbers were solid early, but not what some expected when the Timberwolves gave him $60 million over five years to stay in Minnesota. After slogging through the first 15 games of the season, Pekovic has picked up steam and is flattening everyone in his path.
Over the last 25 games, Pekovic is averaging 20.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and shooting 54 percent. Even more encouraging for the Wolves, he has embraced a different workout routine from new strength coach Koichi Sato and has been healthier than he's ever been.
"I can feel a lot of difference," Pekovic said. "Our strength coach, I think he's doing a great job. He's doing some different things and I can feel how my body responds to everything. I feel better. I've never played so much without missing a game. I'll just try to keep playing as many as I can. For now, they're doing a great job."
Despite widely being considered one of the strongest players in the league, Pekovic's bruising style led to injuries early in his career. He missed 39 games over the previous two seasons, a number that made some nervous when new President Flip Saunders signed him to the long-term deal.
Saunders lured Sato away from the Washington Wizards to help Pekovic, and the rest of the Wolves, avoid the injuries that have plagued them over the last few seasons. Pekovic has played in all 41 games this season, the longest stretch of his four-year career.
Sato went to work with Pekovic to improve his upper body flexibility and posture, getting him to stop running hunched over.
"Stay tall. Be proud," Sato tells Pekovic as he goes through his workout.
Sato, whose official title is director of sports performance, has also helped Pekovic incorporate squats into his routine, a deep knee-bend exercise that many basketball players avoid because they believe it puts too much stress on their knees. Sato says if the exercise is performed correctly, it can make a big difference.