Nikola Pekovic is the kind of player who shouldn't succeed in today's NBA. He's listed at 290 pounds, and that seems generously svelte. There are people reading this sentence right now who have better vertical leaps. He's 6'11, which is tall, but it's not like he's a 7'2 behemoth like Roy Hibbert who can simply turn and drop in hook shots that nobody can block.
And yet, Pekovic just signed a well-deserved five-year, $60 million contract, making him one of the highest-paid big men in the league. The success of his old-fashioned, back-to-the-basket game in an era of smallball is no accident. It comes because he does so much before he even gets the ball to give himself optimal post position.
Sure, his sheer size helps. It's hard to move a 290-pound man under normal circumstances. But Pekovic makes it damn near impossible because of his exemplary footwork.
It starts with the placement of his first step. When Pekovic wants to move somewhere, he makes sure to step between the legs of his defenders. That removes some of their leverage, pushing them back to where Pekovic wants them. Spencer Hawes has no chance to fight through Pekovic's foot placement here.
J.J. Hickson doesn't either, especially because Pekovic is placing his foot between his as a way to disguise his post move as a screen.
And because of his foot placement, Pekovic is even able to shove Kendrick Perkins aside to get an easy layup.
That first step is also essential because it leads to the second step, which goes the opposite way and allows for Pekovic to seal his defender behind him. The first step creates the leverage; the second step puts it into action. How can any post defender get around someone who has made himself this wide so close to the hoop?
That's textbook footwork to seal your defender.
It helps that the Timberwolves' offense is well-suited to take advantage of these skills. One of Minnesota's pet offensive sequences is to run a dribble handoff on one side of the court to get its point guard going to the middle, where he'll find Pekovic deep in the paint on the other side. The defense is focused on the ball, so Pekovic is able to take advantage of its attention being divided and carve out the position he needs.
From there, Pekovic usually finishes with a layup, hook shot or drop step move. He's very patient once he gets it deep, not worried about three-second calls or swarming double teams.
But as good as the footwork is, it also takes a mindset to put oneself in the best position to score this deep in the paint. That sounds like a cliche, but it translates on the court. Pekovic doesn't settle for good post position; he takes great post position when he can. He could have accepted catching the ball in the paint 10 feet from the hoop, but when he didn't feel Elton Brand near him, he backed in further and found himself even closer to the hoop.
And Pekovic doesn't just get open in half-court situations either. Despite carrying close to the most weight in the league, Pekovic hauls his ass down the court in transition faster than players who weigh 60 pounds less. He strategically runs in the middle lane, and when he gets inside his own three-point line, he suddenly shifts into post position and backs down unsuspecting defenders right under the rim. Poor DeMarcus Cousins offers little resistance here.
Here, Jermaine O'Neal just gives up.
By running the floor and using his hustle as a way to seal his man close to the basket, Pekovic gets tons of easy layups a game. If only some of the more spectacular athletes this game has (looking at you, JaVale) were willing to do this.
All of that makes Pekovic an elite post scorer. Here's four and a half minutes of Pekovic carving out position in the low post, set to Ozzy Osbourne's "I Don't Wanna Stop."
The great irony of Pekovic is that he may be a top-five post scorer in the league despite not having many post moves. Other than a drop step and a hook shot as a counter, Pekovic's actions once he actually gets the ball are simple. Dwight Howard, who has been railed against for lacking low-post moves, had a more diverse repertoire several years ago, much less today.
But because of all the work Pekovic does before he catches the ball, he scores in bunches around the rim. Most players do the work after they catch the ball. Pekovic does it all beforehand, which is why he's a load for any team to stop.