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MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — On the third day of training camp, the Minnesota Timberwolves went hard at each other as Nikola Pekovic watched from the baseline seats dressed in jogging pants and a T-shirt.
The image immediately conjured concerns that the oft-injured big man was hurt again. In reality, it was just the opposite.
Coach Flip Saunders gave Pekovic the day off Thursday as part of a program aimed at reducing the wear and tear on their prized center and keeping him on the floor in the second of a five-year, $60 million contract.
Pekovic has missed a combined 48 games over the last two seasons, with his imposing physique unable to withstand his bruising style of play. This season, the Timberwolves are planning to play him less, both in training camp and the games, to try and maximize his production.
"I know the medical staff are doing everything to try to keep me healthy, but like I said many times, my way of playing and how many times I get bumped and I get hit, and of course, I hit people," Pekovic said. "Of course, it's normal to get hurt. I just hope something doesn't happen like the small injuries I had last year."
Pekovic, from Montenegro, averaged a career-high 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds, but missed 13 games in February with bursitis in his right ankle, an injury that flared up again in March and eventually forced the team to shut him down for the final nine games of the season. Saunders said the goal is to keep him under 30 minutes per game during the regular season.
"Ideally you'd like to start out in the mid-20s, but we'll wait and see," Saunders said. "What I don't want to do is I don't want to get carried away like we did last year where he felt so good and then it hit him like a brick wall."
After missing 20 games in 2012-13, Pekovic revamped his training program and played in the first 44 games, emerging as an All-Star candidate while being near the top of the league in double-doubles. Then his ankle flared up, it gave him trouble the rest of the season.
"He went from being third in the league in double-doubles and an All-Star (candidate) and playing off the chart, to all of a sudden he couldn't play at all," Saunders said.
If any good came of Pekovic's injuries, it was that it gave the Wolves time to look at rookie Gorgui Dieng. The native of Senegal emerged over the last half of the season as one of the most productive rookies in the league and was very impressive in the FIBA World Cup this summer, so the Wolves know they have a viable option when Pekovic goes to the bench.
"The better he does, it's less pressure on me," Pekovic said. "Also, if I do bad or he does, we just need to work like one. If one goes bad, the other needs to push more to make the other guy better."
In the final 18 games of the season, Dieng made 15 starts and averaged 12 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, giving the Wolves some much-needed rim protection on defense.
Previous head coach Rick Adelman has long been reluctant to play rookies, so Dieng is hopeful that Saunders, the man who drafted him, will give him more consistent playing time this season.
"One thing I can tell you is, I will be ready," Dieng said. "Whatever the situation will be, I will be ready. I'm seeking more minutes and I will be a real player on this basketball team. I will be ready."
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