Timberwolves fans might have fretted and feared the worst those six weeks when their team haggled with restricted free-agent center Nikola Pekovic over a new contract.
To hear him tell it, even Pekovic’s agents might have done a little of the same.
But the big man who on Friday celebrated five years’ job security and a $60 million guaranteed payday by wearing nearly all black never sweated the small stuff when negotiations stalled — until the Wolves offered a fifth year so Pekovic’s side would accept the team’s $12 million salary ceiling.
“I always knew it was going to get done,” he said at a Friday news conference that officially presented him and the new deal. “I was not nervous. I think my agents were more nervous, that’s for sure. They were calling me, like, ‘Calm down, calm down.’ I said don’t worry, I’m fine.”
He felt fine all those weeks because — as he suggested all last season — he knew he wanted to return to the team that drafted him with the first pick in the 2008 draft’s second round.
He knew that for certain because, well, he likes it here.
Agent Jeff Schwartz suggested they look around for another team to make a massive offer that never came — perhaps partly because Pekovic wasn’t interested and partly because the Wolves made it clear they were committed to matching any offer he might receive.
“I just feel comfortable here,” Pekovic said Friday. “Since I got here, everybody’s really nice to me. You go out for dinner, wherever you go, everybody is nice. People asked me, ‘Where will you live?’ I don’t want to go to bigger city. I just like it here. I like everything. I like the community. I know it’s a little cold in the winter. You just get used to it.
“I just feel very comfortable here and that’s why I said I really like to stay here. And also the fishing is great.”
Pekovic stayed in Minnesota to ice fish last winter when his teammates headed south for warmer climes over All-Star break. It was a choice team President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders remembered and mentioned on Wednesday after Saunders finished spending $120 million of owner Glen Taylor’s money this summer by signing Chase Budinger, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Ronny Turiaf and now Pekovic to multiyear deals.
“If you want to fish, Minnesota is the right place to be,” Saunders said Friday. “Pek was the last [to sign] but the best. He’s a very unique player and this is the right place. I thought from the beginning this was the right place for him.”
The Wolves drafted Pekovic five years ago. He came to the NBA two years later and in little more than three short years has transformed from a player who could barely stay on the floor because of frequent foul trouble his rookie year into a nightly double-double threat who now is the team’s second-highest-paid player, behind only two-time All-Star Kevin Love.
Pekovic said his agent asked how he felt after the deal was agreed upon by both sides on Wednesday morning, days after he and his Montenegrin national team determined he won’t play in next month’s European championship because the negotiations have kept him from properly preparing for it.
“I said I still don’t know,” Pekovic said. “It’s still a little unbelievable. I came here y three years ago and I was basically not even a backup center or nothing. I was fighting for my position. I know I was really fighting and pushing for this, and I’m really happy that all this happened.”
Pekovic said his mother, Vesna, cried when she learned negotiations were complete and her son had earned a sum of money befitting a player Saunders calls a franchise “cornerstone” alongside Love and Ricky Rubio.
It’s also a sum of money no one in their family once ever had a right to even dream about.
His mother and sister — but not his father, Todor — have been to Minnesota to visit.
“But they were here only in the summer,” Pekovic said. “I hope they’ll come to see me play in the next few years. They’ve got five years to come here.”
Pekovic, 27, has five years to live up to the terms of this rich, new contract and prove he can stay healthy for an entire season. Because of nagging injuries, he has never missed fewer than 17 games in each of his first three NBA seasons.
Games played almost certainly is one of many contract incentive clauses included that could boost the deal’s ultimate value to as much as $68 million if the Wolves win big and Pekovic plays like an All-Star.
He didn’t cry when the agreement was reached — at least that anybody knows of — but on Friday he still seemed somewhat speechless after a dizzying two days that included a hastily arranged trans-Atlantic flight.
“My friends and agents and everybody else ask, ‘What do you think?’ and I’m still not thinking nothing,” he said. “I need five, six days to think about everything. It came so quick. When everybody is talking about it, it’s different. But when they call and say they closed the deal, everything done, you have to go tomorrow, I’m still like in preparation.
“I probably need a few more days to settle down and think. It’s big money.”