SAN ANTONIO – First came along Darko Milicic and later but briefly Miroslav Raduljica, both of them Timberwolves teammates from Nikola Pekovic’s part of the world who shared with him a language from a country split apart.
And now arrives … Justin Hamilton?
Born near the Southern California coast and raised in Utah, the Wolves’ newly acquired center is the one current player who can converse with Pekovic some in his native language.
Hamilton’s mother was born and raised in Croatia. Like Pekovic’s native Montenegro, Croatia once was part of Yugoslavia before the country broke into separate nations when Communism collapsed across Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. A decade later she took him and his siblings back to her homeland to live for a year when he was 10, and two years ago he began his professional career by playing there — greeted by his grandfather upon his arrival.
“It was exciting, when you’re 10 everything is fun,” Hamilton said of his first year spent in the city of Zagreb. “It was real safe. My mom would let me and my sister run around the city, go on the trams. I remember everything about it.”
He remembered just enough of the language to get him by when he played there professionally for five months before his career took him to Latvia, the D League in Sioux Falls, S.D., Charlotte, Miami, New Orleans and now Minnesota in a nomadic career in which he’s still trying to make a name for himself.
After Wednesday’s loss at Phoenix, new teammate Kevin Martin called him “Jordan Hamilton,” who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers. Coach Flip Saunders appeared to call out “Jason” at him during Friday’s loss at Oklahoma City.
Hamilton remembers just enough from his childhood to communicate with Pekovic in languages that are similar but with different dialects.
“It’s like having a different accent almost,” Hamilton said. “I’ve spoken a little with him, but when I don’t want to think, I speak English.”
Hamilton, 24, has played just three games so far with the Wolves — his first NBA action in nearly a month — but already seems to have won Saunders’ confidence. That’s partly because Pekovic and Kevin Garnett in essence have missed the past two games, and Saunders needed another healthy big body up front. It’s also partly because Hamilton has produced, following up a 28-minute, 15-point, three-rebound game Wednesday with a 34-minute, 17-point, 10-rebound double-double Friday.
Wednesday’s 15 points were a career high that he matched Friday against the Thunder. His 34 minutes played Friday were a career high as well.
Saunders has followed Hamilton’s career since friend Fred Hoiberg tried unsuccessfully to get Hamilton to stay at Iowa State shortly after Hoiberg was hired as coach there. Feeling he needed a fresh start even though he says now he liked Hoiberg, Hamilton transferred for his final collegiate season to LSU. Active, mobile and skilled, he attracted Saunders’ attention by playing summers at a somewhat secretive Las Vegas camp run by longtime NBA assistant coach Tim Grgurich.
“He knows how to play,” Saunders said. “Sometimes you need to put some guys in there who won’t screw it up for somebody else. Sometimes you just need a guy you can put in there. He’s a 7-foot Robbie Hummel. He’s going to go in there, know every coverage and what he needs to do. If he gets beat, it won’t be because he made a mental mistake.”
Saunders praised Hamilton’s ability to defend pick-and-roll plays, shooting range, court sense and an ability at 7 feet to run like he was Hummel’s 6-9, all of that these past three games with just one practice behind him.
“He can really run the floor,” said Pekovic, whose running and playing have been curtailed again by painful ankle bursitis. “Makes me jealous.”
Hamilton is back to good health after undergoing a September procedure that corrected a common abnormal heart rhythm.
Now he just needs to learn his new team and new teammates, both on the court with his play and perhaps off the court in snippets of conversation with Pekovic in a mysterious language behind the coach’s back.
“I haven’t heard them yet,” Saunders said. “I hear enough from Pek on the bus. I don’t need to hear anybody else. Pek talks loud enough for three people. That’s enough for me.”