The tiny Balkan nation’s biggest basketball star vows to suit up again for his native country next year.
Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic, the lynchpin of Montenegro’s national team, has pledged to return to the fold and silence critics who accused him of skipping EuroBasket 2013.
“I had private commitments that I had to take care of. It was my top priority, in summer I completed something I’ve fought and worked for during my whole life in basketball,” Pekovic told Voice of America in an interview, referring to the new contract he signed with the Timberwolves in August.
“But from now on nothing can prevent me from rejoining the national team in future campaigns,” added the 6-11 center, who has been averaging 14.2 points and 8.4 rebounds in 15 starts this season. Pekovic’s markedly improved performance in the 2012-13 campaign secured him a spot in the starting lineup last year (he was a starter in each of the 62 games he played) and urged the Wolves’ front office to offer the restricted free agent a new deal that almost tripled his salary.
On Aug. 15, after weeks of negotiations, the team announced that Pekovic had signed a new, five-year contract. The deal is reportedly worth $60 million and includes an additional $8 million in incentives.
Due to protracted negotiations over the new deal, Pekovic eventually missed the Aug. 5 deadline to report to Montenegro’s training camp in the run-up to EuroBasket. FIBA rules require all players appearing at the tournament to have insurance and Pekovic, as an unsigned player in early August, could not have been insured. He was eligible for insurance after signing the new deal with the Wolves in mid-August, but it was too late to honor his commitments to Montenegro.
“Many people condemned my decision not to play for the national team thinking I had some other reasons to do so. The only reason was insurance and Wolves-related issues. But in future campaigns I plan to prove that many of these people were wrong about me,” Pekovic said.
Without its major star Montenegro won its first and last EuroBasket games against Macedonia and Serbia respectively, but three defeats in a row in between those wins anchored Luka Pavicevic’s squad to fifth place in a six-team pool, blocking its passage to second round.