Proud Pekovic In For Another Rookie Tour

12.04.2011

Destination Lithuania

Mark Woods

Every week, fibaeurope.com collaborator Mark Woods talks to players with a single travel destination in mind this summer, Lithuania.

Next in the series is Nikola Pekovic, the big man of EuroBasket rookies Montenegro.

Mark Woods writes on basketball for a number of British newspapers as well as broadcasting for the BBC and Sky Sports. He is also assistant editor of mvp247.com and can be found on Twitter @markbritball.


It will, says Nikola Pekovic, bring a sense of immense pride when the Montenegrin anthem rings out around the Alytus Arena in Lithuania on August 31.

It will mark the start of their first ever EuroBasket appearance.

But also the end of a journey which has seen one of Europe's newest countries take the fastest route possible from formation to a debut at the finals of a major championship.

It is only two years since Montenegro played a first competitive game. "We started in Division B then went into A," the 2.11m centre recalls.

"Then we had to qualify. It's been fun and this will be a great experience. Everyone has sacrificed to get there."

14. Nikola Pekovic (Montenegro)
Nikola Pekovic, still only 24, has been there for every single step Montenegro has taken since birth, from Division B to the EuroBasket finals

13 consecutive victories showed the country's serious intent. Their strength was not a complete surprise, given past contributions to the great Yugoslavia teams or those in union with Serbia.

However flying solo was uncertain, even with the experience of Duško Vujošević as the coach. They achieved more, quicker, than they had expected, admits Pekovic.

"We are a small country but we finished top of our qualifying group. People now are saying: ‘we should go for the medal'. My opinion is we need to move into the second round. And then, anything is possible."

Fate has brought Montenegro together with old friends in Lithuania. Group A also features F.Y.R of Macedonia - their opening opponent - as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Greece.

A qualifier will join in the Balkan battle.

"It's basically a reunion," laughs Pekovic, who will return home this month after his rookie NBA season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"We've played against them all many times, as well as against Greece. They are all good teams. But in a EuroBasket, there will be a lot of pressure. We just need to come prepared, physically and mentally."

There will be a few changes from 12 months ago. Predrag Drobnjak has retired after a distinguished career which took him to the NBA and then back to Europe. Dejan Radonjic has taken over from Vujošević on the bench.

"But it will be mostly the same side which has been together for three years," Pekovic states. "We have a new coach but he knows the systems."

Montenegro coach Dusko Vujosevic
Dusko Vujosevic is no longer at the helm of Montenegro and his former assistant, Dejan Radonjic, will lead the national team in Lithuania

Montenegro's young NBA performer will have more responsibility on his broad shoulders.

He has crammed a lot into his 24 years, winning the Euroleague two years ago with Panathinaikos as well as two Greek League championships before making the switch to Minneapolis last summer.

His first year across the Atlantic, he confirms, has been far from simple. Starting just 10 games. Averaging 5.5 points and 3 rebounds. Figuring out the calls of the referees, often with a bemused look. All while playing for the NBA's worst team.

"It was difficult to adjust, especially with everything you need to do to play in the NBA," he states.

"It's really good basketball but this first year, getting the opportunity, I hope I showed I can play. What was important was that every game I went out and tried to play as hard as I did in Europe."

There were some benefits. Being tutored by Timberwolves head coach Kurt Rambis and his assistant Bill Laimbeer - both elite players in their prime - has taught Pekovic new tricks. He has grown more confident in the post and become a more versatile defender.

"They've helped me every day," he reveals. "We talked at practice, especially for the first few months. Bill worked a lot on my individual game. Kurt gave me support. It was nice to work with both of them."

After a break to shake the grind of the NBA from his legs, he will report for national team camp and hope for better fortunes. The anthem will play, the games will begin, and the Montenegrins will bid to climb even higher still.

As a young player, Pekovic watched his compatriots on TV on the biggest stages. The Olympics, he remembers, was an enthralling spectacle. Could he be in London, in the summer of 2012, with his nation's flag overhead?

"We will try to get there," he smiles. "We'll concentrate on doing well at EuroBasket first. But everyone wants to play at an Olympics. I don't want to promise anything but let's see."

 

 


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