By Jon Krawczynski
AP Basketball Writer
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.
“If a guy has issues, could be pain, could be stiffness, then I’ll take them through program, I retest their movement,” Sato said. “If they say it feels better, I’ll let them be the judge. If it feels better, it’s probably good for you what you just did. Instead of just aimlessly lifting weights.”
Pekovic has always been a workout warrior. But Sato has teamed with head athletic trainer Gregg Farnham and director of athletic therapy Mark Kyger to help Pekovic and the rest of the Wolves change their approach to workouts to avoid the calf strains, hamstring pulls and sprained ankles that hit them in the past.
Gradually, some of the skepticism has faded away.
“For many of guys, initially it’s hard for them to understand,” Sato said. “Because it’s new to them. But not just (Pekovic), a few other guys started saying hey, I couldn’t do this before, but now I can do this.”
Even early in the season, Saunders swatted away concerns about his decision to pay Pekovic. Now his faith is being validated.
“Our medical people have worked with him a lot on his flexibility. He’s a lot more flexible in his upper body being able to move the ball around,” Saunders said. “There’s no question right now if they had not changed the rules on All-Star (voting), he would make the All-Star team.”
The league no longer reserves specific spots for centers on the All-Star rosters. In a Western Conference stacked with superb power forwards, and with a team that has a record below .500, it might be difficult to for Pekovic to make the team. But just the fact that he’s been available for every game, and heard his boss speak so highly of his performance, is enough for him.
“For me, the guys who give me the money, the guys who pay me, if they got that opinion about me, that means I’m doing a great job,” Pekovic said. “I need to keep doing that. That means a lot me that he said that.”