Nikola Pekovic assumes nothing. Not any more.
And who can blame him? He’s spent the past two years trying different forms of therapy, different approaches to his job of being a physical NBA center. He’s tried treatment, worked on his flexibility, everything.
And the pain never left, ultimately forcing surgery in April.
So excuse the cynicism. “They said everything went fine,” Pekovic said. “But I’m always saying I don’t believe anything until I start running.’’
And that will be a while. The Timberwolves opened training camp Tuesday with an afternoon practice, run by interim coach Sam Mitchell while Flip Saunders battles cancer. Pekovic, nearly six months removed from the surgery on his right ankle, couldn’t do much more than take some shots, watch, and get yet more treatment.
The surgery was performed in Charlotte, N.C. by well-known foot surgeon Dr. Bob Anderson. In the procedure bone was shaved from around Pekovic’s right Achilles’ tendon, a process that required the tendon to be detached, then reattached. He was in a cast for a month, in an immobilizing boot for two months, on crutches seemingly forever.
He’s been out of the boot for a while. He walks without a noticeable limp. But it will be a while before he even tries to run. At this point he hopes to return to practice in six or seven weeks. He’d like to be playing in December.
But he’s been through enough the past two years that he’s cautious. Not even cautiously optimistic. Just cautious.
“I’m just guessing,’’ he said. “We have a plan, with the doctor. But that doesn’t mean anything. It’s how you feel. It’s a step-by-step thing. One day, if I feel pain, I [slow the process down]. But every day I’m trying to do more.’’
In the meantime the Wolves are getting ready to start the season without Pekovic who, even when healthy, is viewed as a 20- or 25-minutes-per-game player. While Pekovic is a pure center, the players who will man the position without him can best be called forward/centers.
Gorgui Dieng, entering his third season, has played primarily center, but has also played some power forward. Dieng has improved his game dramatically since entering the league and he can defend the rim, but has been mismatched physically by some NBA centers.
Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns, the top overall pick in the 2015 draft, is promising, but green.
Veteran Kevin Garnett is the team’s best option at the position, certainly defensively. But there are questions about how many minutes he’ll be available for on a game-by-game basis. And he reconfirmed his dislike for the position at Monday’s media day. “I’m 235, 240 pounds,” Garnett said. “And guys who play the center? DeAndre Jordan is like 275, 280. That’s outweighing me by like 40 pounds. But what I don’t have in weight I make up in heart.’’
Interim coach Sam Mitchell said Garnett is unlikely to play much at the position. But he will be instrumental in helping Dieng and Townes develop.
“There will be ample minutes for those guys,” Mitchell said.
Pekovic, meanwhile, is hoping the surgery will allow him to play, pain-free. The past two seasons he tried to play through it, but ultimately couldn’t, appearing in just 85 of a possible 164 games.
“Basically I lost two years,” Pekovic said.
Even when he did play, he said, the pain never left, affecting his ability to bang down low, get to the rim on his offensive moves.
“Everything you need to do,” he said. “Every step was painful.’’
Pekovic said the surgery has alleviated the pain in that area. But, working to get better, he has felt pain in other areas as he works through his treatment; Pekovic said the doctors told him he’d deal with general soreness for up to a year after surgery.
The goal is to feel good enough to play come December. But what if the surgery doesn’t ultimately solve the problem? Was that his final option?
“That’s a good question,” said Pekovic, who is owed nearly $36 million over the next three seasons. “I’m not sure I know how to answer it.’’