Despite finishing third in the Most Imroved Player voting last year, Nikola Pekovic is still one of the most underrated players in the league. It may be that he plays in Minnesota, or that his style of play is anything but flashy, but quietly, he has developed into one of the most effective centers in the NBA. Pekovic knows what he can do and he doesn’t overextend himself.
Straight out of Russia, 24 year old rookie Alexey Shved has impressed to start the season. He has held down the fort as the the starting shooting guard for a playoff-contending Wolves team in Brandon Roy’s absence. He has struggled shooting the ball so far, but has put it together in crunch time (last 5 minutes, scoring margin of plus- or minus-5) where he is shooting 45% from the field, per NBA.com.
Most importantly for Minnesota fans, these two have combined to become a deadly pick and roll duo. Outside of Tyson Chandler, Pekovic might be the best roll man in the league. His 1.31 points per play as the pick and roll dive man are fifth in the league and he is shooting 65.4% on the play, per mySynergySports.
Here are a couple of Pekovic’s plays as the roll man with Shved as the ball-handler:
Pekovic isn’t as athletic as Chandler or a pick and pop shooter like Ryan Anderson, so what is it that makes him such an effective roll man? Two things: fundamentals and the threat Shved represents coming around the screen.
There’s a common theme in all four of these stills. Alexey Shved comes off the pick and attracts two defenders, while Pekovic rolls uncontested to the rim with the help defense (green arrow) coming over from the weakside corner or wing. Pek then uses his enormous girth to seal off the help defender (or in some cases, multiple help defenders) and finishes, draws the foul or does both. Pekovic has a rare combination of strength and size to block off his defender, along with soft touch to finish at the rim.
Don’t forget the ballhandler Shved, either. While he has struggled shooting the ball from the outside so far in his NBA career, he is still a threat to get into the lane and score off the pick and roll.
In this play, JR Smith has trouble getting around the screen from Pekovic - the immovable Pek is quite the formidable screener. Shved attacks and keeps reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler on his heels, stops on a dime and hits a tough floater. Shved has shown that he knows how to score off the pick and roll, he just hasn’t been consistent with it yet. If he can become a little more consistent, it very much becomes a pick your poison situation for the defense when he’s roaring around a Pekovic screen while the big man dives to the rim.
Within this action, there is another option if Shved isn’t hitting and the defense is throwing all they have at Pekovic. The second big man on the floor can flash to the elbow for a midrange jumper, or if it’s Kevin Love, pop all the way outside the arc for a 3-pointer.
In the above shot you see Dante Cunningham (who is shooting 40% from midrange this season, per NBA.com) flashing to the elbow in tandem with Pekovic’s roll to the rim. Pek sucks the defense in and Cunningham finds wide open space. He doesn’t end up getting the ball here, but is wide open. Throwing it to the elbow doesn’t necessarily have to be for a shot, either. That spot provides a better angle for a pass to the man in the weakside corner, who also flashes open when his man crashes into the lane to guard Pekovic on the roll. There’s also the option of the high/low big-to-big pass if the defense closes quickly on Cunningham.
As chemistry develops and Shved adjusts to the NBA look for this type of thing to become more widely used in Minnesota’s offense. It has been an effective action thus far and will only get better as Shved gets more comfortable.