Player Capsules 2012, #94-96: Nikola Pekovic, Evan Turner, Greivis Vasquez

Posted on Wed 15 August 2012 in 2012 Player Capsules by Aaron McGuire

As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. Today we continue with Nikola Pekovic, Evan Turner, and Greivis Vasquez.

• • •

Follow Nikola Pekovic on Twitter at @14pek.

Let's say you're a mad scientist. You're the Dr. Marc Franken-Stein of science, a hoops connoisseur with lab and a mission. You're hired by David Khan. (Who else?) He wants you to build the perfect frontcourt partner for his superstar, Kevin Love. You think on it a while. It's an interesting question -- statistically, you don't need Love's partner to be the greatest player ever, but you need to hit some key benchmarks. He needs to be a good post player, so he can draw help and allow Love easy room to shoot the three. By percentage, Love is one of the premier defensive rebounding talents in the league, but he's average or slightly below for a big man on the offensive glass -- if you give Love's partner an excellent nose for the ball on the offensive end, the Wolves will hardly ever lose the possession battle, and that'll help compensate for the team's anemic defense. In order to keep the Timberwolves offense flowing, the center can't be a poor free throw shooter -- every possession, you want the ball in Rubio or Love's hands, and keep their sacred flow intact. Ideally, Love's partner would be a great defensive player in his own right, and help the Timberwolves out of the gutter -- barring that, at least having a partner with some offensive rebounding ability (as previously stated) is crucial. In an aesthetic sense, you probably want a bit of a bulldog, a tough and imposing figure to place next to Love's more aloof stylings. If you were this scientist, and you were successful? You'd probably have built Nikola Pekovic. Almost exactly.

There are a few gaps, but not many -- Pekovic is an absolute bruiser in the post, with a mid-size array of moves but an adept sense of how to convert the moves he has. Last season, Pekovic had the second highest offensive rebounding percentage in the game after Kenneth Faried -- the Wolves defense was incredibly permissive, but by simply gobbling up every shot and letting their deadly offense run its course in more possessions than the other team could muster, the Wolves had stretches of nearly-elite play. Poor free throw shooter? Hardly -- at 74%, Pekovic had the 6th highest free throw percentage among centers that played more than 25 minutes a night. Pekovic was a promising, bruising defensive player in his own right -- his help defense was lacking, to be sure, but Pekovic had a unique ability to roughhouse and nestle opposing centers with his size and strength. Most centers entered the year looking forward to a matchup with the Timberwolves -- not since the days of Rasho have the Wolves had a remotely imposing player at the center position. Pekovic takes that former position of weakness and spits on it, crumples it up, and flings it into the abyss of hell. (Yes, this speaks to the last bit of aesthetics -- Pekovic is about as tough as you get.)

This isn't to say Pekovic doesn't have his limitations. He doesn't really have a competent shot outside the paint. As mentioned, he's not the greatest defensive rebounder on the face of the earth -- although he came a percentage point from leading the league in offensive rebounding rate, his defensive rebounding rate was the 2nd lowest among centers that averaged more than 25 minutes a night. Attribute that to Love, if you want, but be wary -- his pace-adjusted offensive rebounding numbers were almost always superior to his defensive rebounding numbers in the Euroleague. Occam's razor dictates that he's probably just not as good at defensive rebounding as he is offensive rebounding. Which, as I've noted, is perfectly fine -- next to Love, one of the greatest defensive rebounders ever, I'd argue that's exactly what you want. But in a different context, where Pekovic isn't next to one of the greatest defensive rebounders in the game, his lacking command of the defensive glass could become a problem. So too could his help defense, which is definitively not an asset. Pekovic is probably the strongest player in the league, and it shows in his ability to individually cover all sorts of dominant centers. But with that strength comes a lot less of the mobility and fluidity that makes defenders like Kevin Garnett and Anderson Varejao effective as helpers in a broader scheme.

Still, that strength has advantages too -- although he hasn't gotten in the habit of setting a surplus of illegal screens (a la Garnett), Pekovic sets (according to many guards, including Tony Parker) the most painful screens in the NBA. And as I've outlined, Pekovic is a fantastic frontcourt partner for Kevin Love -- if his help defense was better, he'd be virtually perfect. It isn't, and given his obsessive desire to add strength to his frame and the resultant lacking fluidity, it's hard to imagine Pekovic becoming a game-changing help defender. The mobility is so crucial to that, and I just don't see how he develops it. Still, combine all his skills with the roster around him and you have a roster that's at a minimum contending for the playoffs in a loaded west, and a roster that could sniff home court advantage if a few things swing their way. Really can't wait to watch the Big Three on this Wolves team develop. Can you? Imagine Playoff Pek. Think about Love with the usual Olympic game-enhancement. Muse on Rubio with a full training camp. Lordy. It's going to be really, really fun to watch this Wolves team ply their trade. Can't wait.

• • •

F__ollow Evan Turner on Twitter at_ _@__thekidet._

I don't really know what to make of Evan Turner. As a rookie, I thought him rather disappointing. As a sophomore, my opinion of him seemed to change every time I watched him. One day you'd watch Turner and he'd be excellent -- rebounding like a big man from the guard position, chipping in on offense, and applying effective defensive pressure in the Collins scheme. He had games that impressed, and made it seem like he was making the most of his high draft selection. Then, seemingly at random, he'd have games that were terrible beyond reason -- 3-10 shooting nights against questionable defensive pressure, 22% shooting on 22 shots, and complete no-show performances in games the Sixers could've won. Hard to assess players that can translate to that last game less than a week after doing things like this, you know?

In how he's approached the regular season, you can see some moderately bad signs for his development. Consider his shot distribution, located here. From his rookie year to his sophomore year, Turner increased the number of shots he was taking outside of 10 feet while decreasing his free throw rate -- very bad signs going forward. Turner is an player who is at his best when he's on the attack, driving into the lane and slashing to the rim to draw free throws or get fouled. He's honestly pretty awful when he's trying to act as a large rebounding guard -- he camps out in the midrange, takes a bunch of ill-advised jump shots, and doesn't aggressively take the game and make it his own. That's really the key with Turner -- when he shows aggression and confidence, he shows flashes. But when he simply settles for what the defense gives him and allows himself to camp out at the long two or the three, he's just not very good. Turner is a large wing that should be playing the three-spot. Now that Iguodala's gone, he'll probably get to do that.

So, what is Evan Turner, exactly? He's a wing with a phenomenal touch for the boards, for one thing. Turner is one of the better pound-for-pound rebounding talents in the entire league, which does count for something. He's also a wing without a three point shot, which counts for something in the opposite sentiment. He's a decent passer, but nowhere near Iguodala's level -- he can set up the obvious basket, or find the open man, but he'll just as often throw the ball into a scrum and give the opposition a crucial fast break in a close game. When he shows confidence and aggression, he's great -- when he shows confidence in his jump shot, he's just about the worst player on the court. Overall, it averages out to a player with insane highs and stark lows. And a player that's as hard to predict as he is to assess. Jordan Sams could be right -- Turner could be poised for a breakout season. He also could be completely wrong, and this could be a season where everyone else in the league finally finds themselves fully acquainted with Turner's flaws. After all, good defenses seem to be getting better and better at goading him into his flawed and broken jump shot -- what happens when the entire league figures it out? I'm not really sure, and Turner's high variance game makes nothing assured. He could be great, he could be awful. In any event, he'll be an interesting player to watch next year, if not a bit of a stressful one for Ohio State and Philadelphia fans alike.

• • •

Follow Greivis Vasquez on Twitter at @greivisvasquez.__

You know how Evan Turner is going to get his own shot at playing a starring role next year? So will this guy. There isn't a single other point guard on the Hornets' roster, as it stands. When, exactly, are people going to notice this? I probably sound like a crotchety old man, but come on. It's one thing when you have Jarrett Jack there, and Vasquez acting as his backup -- they gave Jarrett Jack to the Warriors for virtually nothing, and they're left with a ridiculously strange conundrum at the point. Look at this depth chart. There aren't any point guards on the Hornets' roster other than Vasquez, and before you say Austin Rivers, let me tell you something. I watch point guards, I know point guards, point guards are friends of mine. Senator, Austin Rivers is no point guard. There's a reason I don't analyze rookies in this feature. It's harder to find footage of rookies, and I'm not a big college guy. But I went to Duke, so I have a passing interest in Duke's team and watch some of their games. So I can talk about Austin Rivers.

... and dear god, Austin Rivers is a bad passer. Rivers is a Jamal Crawford type player -- he has no problem getting his shot, anywhere on the court. He's got a great crossover -- seriously, it's legitimately great -- and he breaks more ankles with it than a toddler-sized Tonya Harding. That doesn't mean he can make shots from everywhere, but he sure as hell can get shots from anywhere. But his passing? Well... okay, I'm going to assume you're familiar with the problems with college statistics. Namely that a player's college stats have been acquired in a league where that player is being asked to do very different things than they will at the college level -- just because a 6'0" swingman averages 20-7-5 in college doesn't mean they'll have the ability to leverage even a 10-3-2 in the pros, because size matters and if they got five assists per contest as the primary ball-handler on a college team there's no way they'll get much more than 2 or 3 assists a night in the NBA. Simply no way.

Austin Rivers -- despite being Duke's primary ballhandler for the majority of the season and having a veritably insane amount of free reign from Coach Krzyzewski -- averaged two assists per game. In 33 minutes a night, in college. He was on a team emphasizing passing and getting open, and on a team with FOUR PLAYERS shooting over 40% from three, and two players "shooting" 60% from the floor (due to the fact that they took nothing but at-rim slams and tip-ins). He combined those 2.1 assists with 2.3 turnovers a night -- yes, he had an assist to turnover ratio that was actually below one. In Duke's last three games -- against Florida State, Lehigh, and Virginia Tech -- Austin Rivers played 108 minutes. He registered four assists over those 108 minutes. Total. One assist per 27 minutes of play. Again -- in college. Look, you can try and explain away a few individual problems in Rivers' game, and you can say that he'll get better. But Rivers-as-a-point-guard is a concept with more red flags than Tomáš ?epka. And I'm supposed to buy that Monty Williams -- an excellent coach with a good sense on how to put together the best rotation possible -- is going to play Rivers 20-30 minutes a night at point guard? Fat chance.

No, Vasquez is about to get a golden opportunity. He's going to be playing a ton of minutes on a relatively decent team, he's going to be starting for the majority of the season, and he's going to get ample opportunities to work on his busted three point shot. Vasquez isn't exactly a high upside player -- he's got lacking lateral quickness for the NBA game, his outside shot is poor, and he's already 25 years old. But he's got a lot of positives -- insanely prolific setup man (Vasquez sported the 13th highest assist percentage in the league last year, right behind Andre Miller and Kyrie Irving), very good size for his position (he's a legitimate 6'6" as a point guard, which is a huge asset for guarding post-up point guards like Andre Miller), and a ceaseless motor that should be the envy of every borderline NBA player in the league. I admit, I HATED Vasquez at Duke (and honestly, was there anybody in the ACC that DIDN'T hate him, outside of Maryland?) and I hated him in 2011 when he was slicing the Spurs up in the first round of the playoffs. His boundless confidence, his annoying smile, his skill at getting under the skin of opposing teams -- all of it rubbed me the wrong way. To some extent, it still does, but I thought he was fun to watch last year. So some of it has faded. I like what the Hornets are doing, and I'm excited to see what Vasquez does with a bigger role -- it's rare that a team puts this much confidence in a player after one decent season as a backup, but I think it'll turn out well in the end.

(... still think the Hornets should've picked Kendall Marshall, tho.)

• • •

At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. For the first time in a long time, the best guess was 1/3! Come on, guys. The only player anyone got right was Pekovic. Crazy stuff.

  • Player #97 is very interested in psychology. He likes magic, too.
  • I absolutely loved watching him in college, even given my dislike for Syracuse. But watching Player #98 in the NBA is a painful experience.
  • May be a bust now, but just wait til Player #99 steals Gordon Hayward's minutes! Wait. Dang.
I've been preparing for tomorrow's set a long time. Excited for it.