Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman ended each of his long training-camp practices in Mankato last week the same way: He lined up his dog-tired players on the baseline and summoned one after another to the free-throw line until somebody inevitably missed. Then he blew his whistle and they all ran sprints from one end of the court to the other and in between.
And often the first player up and back was not little Luke Ridnour or J.J. Barea but rather big, bad Nikola Pekovic, the 6-10 European center with the skulls and warrior tattooed on his arm.
"You just don't see that with big guys," Adelman said.
He does now, after Pekovic came back from summer a few pounds lighter and most noticeably leaner, down from 12-plus percent body fat to 8 percent.
"I feel good, I feel stronger and everything," he said. "Most important for me is I can run more. That's something I can do. If I can run more, I can stay longer in the game."
Staying in the game was an issue his rookie season two years ago, but not because of his conditioning. Big and bruising, he had trouble learning what NBA referees considered a foul, and NBA referees probably took their time learning about him.
Playing time also became an issue late in last year's breakthrough season because of bone spurs on his ankles that first pained and then sidelined him.
Now the bone spurs are gone, shaved off during a May surgery, and Pekovic is entering his third NBA season -- a contract season for him -- wiser and noticeably leaner after a second season in which he contended for the league's Most Improved Player award.
"I feel somehow different this season," Pekovic said. "You know players. You know the league now. You know how everything works. It gives me more confidence."
Getting his chance
In one breath, he calls himself different. In the next, he contends he's the same player he was as a rookie.
What has changed, apparently, is simply opportunity.
"It's just different when you spend some time on the court, when somebody gives you a chance," he said. "If you play 25, 30 minutes, you have some chance to show something. You got more chance to score, to do some good stuff. If you're like only one, two minutes in the game, there's no chance."
He believes his leaner look will allow him to run better with his teammates and to play more minutes.
That new look also has caused Wolves fans concern on Twitter, where a smattering of them worried that he now might have turned himself into something of a weakling.
Remember, the guy's got a bed of skulls tattooed on his upper arm.
"He's slimmed down, but he's stronger," Adelman said. "You just watch him. Guys in the scrimmages just want out of there. They don't want to go against him. He's going to be crucial for us. If we have a guy who has to be our Iron Man, it's Pek. When we have him out there, he's such a force around the basket. It makes everybody else better."
Adelman calls Pekovic at center and two-time All-Star Kevin Love at power forward the only givens in his starting lineup during a preseason schedule in which Adelman plans to experiment with different combinations at the other three positions.
It sounds like Love hopes that tag-team pairing applies during practice scrimmages, too.
"I try to team up with him, I want him on my team," Love said. "I'm assuming I'll be on the court with him a lot this year. It's good to be on his side."
Adelman praised Pekovic's passing, of all things, after Thursday's practice, saying the big guy is seeing plays unfold and making passes that he didn't see from Pekovic all last season.
Adelman also wants Pekovic to expand his offensive game, which apparently means shooting the ball from beyond 2 feet.
"He can really shoot the ball from 15, 16 feet, he just never looks for it," Adelman said. "I offer him the three-pointer every time I talk to him about it, and he has not accepted that yet."
Pekovic said he is open to all suggestions, except maybe that three-point thing.
"Not yet, that is too far," he said. "The coaching staff is just asking, they think I can take those 15- to 18-foot shots. I don't know, I never shot that shot. I'll try to take them this year."
Either way, he will get paid big after this season for his seemingly unstoppable low-post game and intimidating court presence, not his outside shot.
The first player taken in the 2008 draft's second round, Pekovic will become a restricted free agent next July at age 27 if the Wolves don't sign him to a contract extension before them.
And remember: Pekovic plays in a league where big men Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert just got maximum-sized deals and Houston just paid a guy named Omer Asik more than $8 million a year.
His agent, by the way, is Jeff Schwartz, who negotiated Al Jefferson's $65 million deal with the Wolves in 2007 and Love's four-year, $61 million-plus extension last winter.
"Yeah, he has a history with Wolves, but I know nothing about it," Pekovic said. "I'm just here to do my job, that's all. I'm not really trying to think in that way. I'm just trying to establish myself here. That's what I'm trying. After I do that, the money will come. I'm not really thinking about it in this moment."
The Wolves' summertime personnel moves have put them right at the NBA's salary cap, but they can choose to exceed it and pay Pekovic as much as they want up to the maximum salary because he is already on their roster.
Pekovic said he wants to stay in Minnesota.
"I would like to stay here because of everything," he said. "I just like everything. I like the area. I like the team. I like all the stuff. Now I got some friends here. Now it's real easy. It's just nice, nice people, nice town. I would like to be here."