While centers like Marc and Pau Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard and Brook Lopez have received their dues, and while DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan are being highlighted more entering this season, there are two standout middlemen who are still under the radar of most casual NBA fans. Ironically, they're both friends, fellow countrymen and have the same first name: Nikola Pekovic and Nikola Vucevic.
On Tuesday, the NBA announced that opening-day rosters featured a record 92 international players from 39 countries and territories. Only two of them, however, were from Montenegro—Pekovic and Vucevic, the starting centers for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic, respectively.
You just haven't heard much about them because they're not from the U.S., just coming off breakout performances last season and have hardly any playoff appearances in their few years in the league.
Both faced off against each other for the first time this season on Wednesday at the Target Center, as the Timeberwolves escaped in overtime, 120-115. Pekovic had 11 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes; Vucevic finished with 22 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in 46 minutes.
While they meet only one more time in April at the Amway Center in Orlando, their relationship extends way beyond any NBA arena.
Not only do they have the same first name, they've also been friends since the summer of 2007 when Pekovic was on the Montenegrin national basketball team and Vucevic was on the country's U-17 team. Then, in the summer of 2011, after Pekovic's rookie season in Minnesota and before Vucevic's first one in Philadelphia, they teamed up together on the national team in the FIBA EuroBasket championships held in Lithuania.
During the tournament they became much closer, and every NBA offseason since then they've spent time together in Montenegro training and at the beach. They only live about 45 minutes apart; Pekovic is in Podgorica, the capital and largest city in the country, and Vucevic resides in a coastal town called Bar. Back home, Pekovic has helped Vucevic with his inside game, and Vucevic has given his buddy tips on outside shooting.
Based on their success last season—Pekovic averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds, while Vucevic put up 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds (second-most in the league)—their celebrity profile increased in Montenegro over the offseason. (Pekovic, in fact, signed a new five-year contract worth $60 million with a potential $8 million in incentive-related bonuses.) But they enjoyed the extra attention because they know their presence in the highly publicized NBA means everything to their small country.
"I think it's really special for us, and I know a lot of people appreciate us, how well we represent our country," Pekovic told Bleacher Report. "There are like 650,000 people there, and there are two good centers in the NBA. Everybody is mentioning Montenegro, and everybody is aware of how good we've been for our country."
Vucevic added: "It's great, especially because Montenegro is such a small country. It's pretty impressive. A lot of people really follow us, especially last year when we were both playing well. We were in the newspaper a lot, on TV. They were talking about us and when we went back home this summer, people tried to do interviews with us and always talked to us. We're both very recognizable because we're both tall. People know who we are everywhere we go in Montenegro, so it's definitely fun to represent your country."
While Pekovic and Vucevic were on the national team in 2011, they didn't spend much time on the same court together overseas. That's because when Pekovic joined the Greek champion club Panathinaikos in 2008, Vucevic signed with USC that year to play college ball. Pekovic, who's four years older at 27, was touted as one of the best players in Europe at the time; Vucevic felt like he needed more exposure in front of local NBA scouts to make it into the league.
Then in 2010, Pekovic first signed with the Timberwolves—he was drafted by them in 2008—and a year later, Vucevic was selected by the 76ers in the first round. In their first matchup on Feb. 19, 2012, Pekovic had 17 points and nine rebounds, and Vucevic finished with eight points and four rebounds in less than half the minutes.
"The first time I played him, it was exciting and it was a little weird playing against your country guy in the NBA," Vucevic recalls. "Us coming from this small country that most people don't know about in America and we're going against each other, that was pretty exciting. Going against a player like him definitely makes me better. It's a tough task to go against him because he's so physical, but at the same time he's pretty skilled, too."
Pekovic said Vucevic is a "great rebounder" who needs to continue developing his scoring game. Vucevic is known as more of a pick-and-pop shooter than a low-post threat—that's Pekovic's forte—and the Magic center said he's looking to be more active down low this season.
"(The Magic coaches) just want me to be a big part of this team," he said. "They just want me to be aggressive on offense and defensively being able to protect the rim like a safety down there in the paint—just talking and telling everybody where to go and stuff like that."
Pekovic has also been a mentor for Vucevic. Pekovic makes it a point of watching his friend's games whenever they're on TV and providing advice afterward.
"He's told me good things about my game and he's helped me a lot," Vucevic said. "He watches my games and he tells me I did this well, you can do this better. He's older and has more experience. He's been through more stuff than I have."
While they talk and text a lot during the season—even grabbing a bite before their matchups—there is nothing mushy about the way they play against each other.
"We get physical, we're fighting for rebounds," Pekovic said. "We're friends off the court, but on the court we're fighting for our positions."
The 7'0" Vucevic said he's been "lucky" he hasn't caught an elbow yet from the physical Pekovic, who's 6'11" and more than 290 pounds.
"I think he might be the strongest guy in the NBA," Vucevic said. "He just moves people around. Once he gets in the paint, he puts his feet down. I don't think there's a lot of people in this league that can move him at all. So once he gets down there in the paint, he's just so dominant.
"He's not athletic where he's going to go dunk on everybody, but he uses his body very well. He moves people around and just finishes well over taller people. He's very good around the basket, and I learn from him. I think his main thing is that he uses his body very well. He knows how to protect himself from shot-blockers and stuff like that."
They also have different personalities. While Vucevic is laid back with a calmness in his voice, Pekovic is more outgoing with a rapid-fire delivery. Pekovic also loves to fish—for bass and Northern pike in Minnesota and trout in Montegenro—but Vucevic hasn't taken an interest in the sport just yet.
Pekovic is also more than 40 pounds bigger. But even with his massive frame, full beard and rugged on-court demeanor, Pekovic said he tries to be funny in person because he doesn't like it "when people think I'm mean." Vucevic knows where he's coming from.
"If you don't know him and you just see him walking down the street, the guy is 6'11" and he's a very big guy, wide and strong," Vucevic said. "And he has a beard most of the time. It's like you don't want to mess with him, but he's a very good guy, very funny, cool guy to be around. I can talk to him about everything."
Looking ahead, they're interested in putting on a camp together in Montenegro for young players. They realize the talent there is not surrounded by the best competition to improve, and they feel better on-court development and knowledge about making it to the NBA would be essential for them.
"We've talked about it," Vucevic said. "Definitely we would love to help people out there and help young players develop and teach them something that we know. We've got some pretty good talent basketball-wise, but it's just hard because Montenegro is such a small country, so the league there is not as good, there's not as much money. So I think after a certain age, guys have to go to better leagues and play for better teams."
In the meantime, Pekovic and Vucevic still have a mountain to climb in their own NBA conferences. The Timberwolves are in the stacked Western Conference, and the Magic are facing another lottery season, which could be the front office's focus with highly touted one-and-dones Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle likely in the draft next year.
However, Vucevic feels his team's league-low 20 wins in 2012-13 didn't indicate their competitive level.
"We've got some good players who've gotten better," he said—and Pekovic said his team's defensive approach in training camp will help them "do something this season." Orlando now also has Rookie of the Year favorite Victor Oladipo, and Minnesota returns a healthy Kevin Love, who's coming off of an injury-riddled season.
Regardless of where both teams end up in the playoff race this season, Pekovic and Vucevic are in the next wave of top centers in the league. It won't take long before they're everyone's headache in the paint.
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