Last season, he languished in obscurity. Most teams had no idea who he was, even if they had played against him. He hardly struck fear in to any hearts. Yet for the past few weeks he has been destroying unprepared defenses, and now the commenting crews on away games are full of alternating praise and fear.
This article is not about Jeremy Lin. It's about Nikola Pekovic, otherwise known as the Peksecutioner (a term that I am fairly certain @canishoopus coined). I find the nickname appropriate, since Nikola gets the bulk of his points from his physical play. If I were giving out this year's awards right now, Pek would easily be the runaway winner for most-improved. In fact, it really wouldn't even be a close race. He's gone from absolutely horrific in 10-11 to Pektakular in 2011-12:
|Average PF(2010 - 2011)||1026||.099||2.1||20.0||7.9||3.4||11.3||2.5||2.4||1.4||1.3||4.7|
Note that some of these WP48 numbers are a bit inflated, since Pek spends quite a bit of time at the center position, but he'd still be fantastic even if we treated him as a full-time center. And one thing stands out in Pekovic's numbers: his remarkable shooting efficiency (even last year, it was one of the few things he did well). And the reason he's so efficient is that he very rarely shoots unless he's at the rim. Layups, dunks, little up-and-under hooks, flip-hooks, if he can't get to the rim, he won't shoot. In fact, it might be fair to say that unless he's on the free throw line, he never actually shoots the ball. I don't think I've even ever seen him do a turn-around jumper on the low block.
So, he's extremely efficient in the low post. He has very solid footwork and he's probably the best big in the league at sealing his defender and getting the ball in very deep position. For comparison, watch Dwight Howard play on the low post and you'll see what I mean; defenders play very physically with Howard; they can't front him (he's too athletic, you'd just be giving up too many lob dunks), so they try to push him off the low block as he's catching so that he's as far from the paint as possible. And often, they get away with it; this is why, as effective as Howard is, he has a reputation for not being a great post-up player. But it isn't his skills that are the problem -- it's that often when he gets the ball down low, he's too far off the block. This lets the defender force him to give up the ball or shoot from further away than he's comfortable with.
If, however, you watch Pek, you'll notice that when he gets a cross screen from Love, or flashes from the weak side when the point is pick-and-popping with Love, or when he's rolling himself off the high pick-and-roll (he never pops), he does not try to come all the way to the block to "meet" the ball; instead, he tries to get his defender behind him, make his frame as wide as possible, and just stop right smack in the middle of the lane, sealing his defender. When the entry pass hits him, he is usually standing right smack under the basket. Blocking this shot is all but impossible for most post-defenders because Pek is now just too damn close (and the basket itself will hinder the shot-blocker). Note that this is also why he gets called for 3 seconds more than most bigs; he's literally parked in the middle of the zone, and if that entry pass doesn't come, it sometimes takes him too long to clear out of the lane.
What's interesting about the numbers is that the reasons Pek is very good this year are the same "good" parts of his game from last year -- high shooting efficiency coupled + lots of offensive rebounds. That's really all there is. The improvement from last year to this year boils down to two things: 1) he's doing what he does well more frequently and b) he's no longer a fouling machine. Relative to last year, he's nearly halved his foul rate. Some of this is Pek getting a little smarter about fouls, some of this is just the ridiculous tendency of all NBA refs to call fouls on rookies (unless the rookie in question is a superstar), and I suspect some of it is that Pek has improved so much that referees now know who he is, and are a little more lenient. These last two factors are important because many of Pek's fouls were for moving screens, but if NBA refs had even a shred of honesty about calling moving screens on the high pick and roll, they would whistle Every. Single. Pick. Seriously, Pat Riley practically invented the moving screen in the 90s and it's still a big part of the NBA. I cannot remember the last time I saw a high screen that I would allow in a high school game. NBA refs only call it intermittently now, when they think it's getting totally out of hand and want to "reset" the players' behavior, and Pek was the victim of choice for these kinds of whistles.
So, to recap: the Peksecutioner is playing just like he did last year, only...more, except for fouls. He's still bad at turning the ball over and he still isn't a great defensive rebounder or passer. Mostly, he's more productive because it turns out that if you are really good at putting the ball into the hoop, then getting more shot attempts is a really good for winning. How is it that Pek has managed to increase his shot attempts per 48 and his offensive rebounds per 48 this year? Well, as usual, I blame it on Kurt Rambis.
Kurt Rambis is no longer coach
The reason I bring up Rambis is because Kurt, genius that he is, employed an offensive system that heavily de-values the low-block post-up. Nearly all the post-ups in Rambis' offense came in the first quarter, when he force-fed Darko Milicic in an attempt to "get him going" (more brilliant coaching). Inevitably, that didn't work, and the offense changed gears to the standard triangle, which emphasizes the big man flashing to the corners of the lane, some cross-screening on the low block, and letting the wing players create, cut, and improvise. This, of course, does not suit Pek's skillset at all. This is evident whenever Pek receives a pass at the top of the key; unlike Love, he's never really a threat out, nor does he try to be; he'll look to get the ball back in the hands of a wing or guard player and at most play the roll of screener during a handoff. It's really just a "reset" option for a point guard or wing that gets in a bit of trouble.
Adelman, however, loves the pick-and-roll and uses it a lot in his offense, with all three primary ball-handlers Rubio, Ridnour, and Barrea. This creates lots of opportunities for Pekovic, whether he is the picker rolling to the basket or he's the weak-side big flashing to the basket when Love pops. Especially the latter causes lots of problems for many defenses, since Love is such an excellent 3-point shooter, the defense simply cannot afford to collapse and clog the lane; if Love's defender showed hard on the pick, the weak-side must help out when Love pops, creating lots of space in the lane for Pek to flash into. In addition to the shots this gets him, it also creates lots of opportunities to crash the boards; opportunities that he rarely had in Rambis's system, where he was really just a handoff-station in the high block a lot of the time.
In addition, Pek gets a lot of post-up touches under Adelman's system, either after a cross-screen from Love, which he uses very effectively, or in a two-man iso-game with Ridnour or Rubio. These aren't Adelman's favorite types of plays, but they are certainly more common with Adelman than they were with Rambis (note, also, that Adelman gave up on posting up Darko to "get him going" very early in the season).
It's not all Rambis
It would be unfair to blame it all on Rambis. Some of it is undoubtedly psychological; since his fouls are way down, he stays on the court longer. And as he stays on the court, he gets more comfortable. That lets him throw his wieght around a little more and crash the offensive glass harder. That, in turn, gets him more easy looks and/or free throws. He's also undoubtedly benefiting from an extra dunk or two per game thanks to playing alongside Ricky Rubio instead of Jonny Flynn, and that must make a huge difference.