MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Timberwolves bruiser Nikola Pekovic has never been accused of being doughy. Then again, even if the big Montenegrin was a little on the pudgy side, it would be hard to find someone brave enough to tell him.
After a breakout season in his second year in the league, Pekovic showed up for the first day of Timberwolves training camp on Tuesday looking noticeably slimmer and more sculpted than he did last season. He only dropped six or seven pounds from his 6-foot-11 frame, but the real strides he made were cutting down his body fat by changing his diet and workout habits.
So where did the weight go?
"To my muscles," Pekovic said with a shrug.
That's a scary proposition for the centers who quickly found out last season that he was about as immovable as the hulking tattoo on his left shoulder of a medieval warrior standing on a pile of skulls.
The numbers he put up were just as imposing. Pekovic was a non-factor in his first season in the league, constantly getting into foul trouble while adjusting to an NBA game that was called tighter than the one he was used to in Europe. But he emerged as one of the best centers in the league last season, averaging 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He was at his best in a 21-game stretch from February to mid-March where he topped 20 points 10 times with nimble low-post footwork.
While Pekovic was crushing bones and swishing free throws in Minnesota, Jeremy Lin was lighting Broadway on fire with the Knicks to grab all the attention. The production certainly was noticed in Minnesota, where Pekovic has become a central part of the Wolves' renaissance.
"He's crucial, there's no doubt," coach Rick Adelman said. "When we were really making a nice run last year, during that one month, the same month that Lin had gotten all of the credit, he had probably a better run than Lin did in New York. He was unbelievable."
Pekovic played in 47 of the 66 games last season, missing almost two weeks at the end of March with ankle problems and then playing through the pain down the stretch. Adelman is curious to see if he can handle the rigors of a full 82-game schedule, and he will have to be able to do it if the Wolves are going to be competitive in the powerful Western Conference. Journeyman Lou Amundson and grinder Greg Stiemsma are the only big men behind Pekovic on the roster.
Now that the Lakers have brought in Dwight Howard, the need for size and strength has never been greater. Pekovic has both of those in abundance.
"Pek's the strongest guy in the NBA," Wolves guard JJ Barea said. "You could ask Dwight."
Or Andrew Bynum, the 7-footer who played for the Lakers last season and didn't enjoy slamming into the Pekovic wall one bit.
"Thank God they took Pekovic out of the game," Bynum said after the Lakers win.
It's been all about opportunity and comfort for Pekovic. His first season in the United States was a frustrating one while he got acclimated to a new home, new rules and new teammates. He only played 13.6 minutes a game and struggled to get a handle on the new offense.
Serbian Darko Milicic was on the roster, and he helped Pekovic with the transition, introducing him some Minneapolis residents from back home and even referring him to some restaurants for some familiar food. It may have been Milicic's biggest contribution in his 2 1/2 years with the Wolves. Milicic frustrated coaches with his work habits and turned off teammates with his sour demeanor and many were relieved when owner Glen Taylor signed off on using the amnesty provision on his contract to get rid of him.
Caught in the middle, Pekovic was sorry to see his friend go. But he also knew it was probably for the best.
"He's a good friend and I miss him," Pekovic said. "He and I hung out a lot, it was easier for me. But it was tough, had some tough moments with the team. But I just tried to be a good teammate."
Now he's on his own, but much more comfortable with his teammates, and his city, than he was when he first arrived.
"They're all great guys, really good (people)," he said. "Especially (Andrei) Kirilenko and Brandon (Roy) bring some more experience on the court. You can see how it's a different team on the court."
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