Pero Antic isn’t your typical second-year NBA player

Nov 5, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Atlanta Hawks power forward Pero Antic (6) shoots the ball past San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being a 32-year-old “sophomore”, Pero Antic of the Atlanta Hawks isn’t worried that the selectors will overlook him when it comes time to pick the pool of players for the NBA All-Star Rising Stars Challenge.

“No. I mean they didn’t forget me last year,” Antic noted with shrug about his selection last season. (He had to later withdraw from the game itself due to an ankle injury.)

With over a decade of experience playing professionally in Europe, perhaps Antic doesn’t even qualify as a ‘rising’ star. Simple arithmetic would dictate that he’s clearly in the second half of his career. But if the rules call to assemble the best first- and second-year NBA players, Antic definitely deserves inclusion.

To be honest, though, the accolade is not a goal for Antic. In fact, he may not have actually given it a single thought before being asked about it.

“I don’t care. The thing that I care about is for the whole team to be healthy, for me to be healthy, and the Ws. That’s the only thing that I care about right now.

“You can see the whole city lives for basketball right now, the gym is full, and we’re having fun on the court and playing good basketball. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

The numbers behind the numbers

Times are good for Atlanta’s professional basketball team. They have won 18 of 20 games, the normally apathetic Philips Arena crowds have perked up for three consecutive sellouts, and the prospect of new and competent franchise ownership lies off in the not-too-distant future.

Atlanta has the best record in the Eastern Conference, and Antic is a big reason why, even if the surface numbers don’t reveal it. His field-goal (39.3%) and three-point field-goal (29.4%) percentages have each taken a tiny dip from his rookie season. His minutes and role, now that starter Al Horford has recovered from a pectoral injury, have scaled back marginally too.

Antic also has a low defensive rebound percentage, grabbing just 12.3% of opponents’ missed shots while in the game. That number puts the 6’11” center on par with smaller players like Victor Oladipo and Patrick Beverley.

Dig deeper, though, and one will see Antic’s true value to the team.

Defensive rating is one good measure.

Antic has the third-best defensive rating in the NBA (minimum 20 games, 15 min/game). When the center from Macedonia takes the floor, the Hawks yield their opponents only 93.8 points per 100 possessions. The only defensive stalwarts in the NBA who have topped that mark this season are Andrew Bogut (91.3) and Dwight Howard (93.6).

About those rebounding numbers: The on-off rebounding splits tell the true story. The Hawks have rebounded 74.1% of their opponents’ misses this season. With Antic on the floor, that number jumps to 78.6% — the highest number among any Hawks rotation player. If Pero isn’t grabbing the rebounds himself, he’s boxing out to help a teammate get it.

What goes beyond numbers was Antic’s value to the Hawks as Horford gradually worked his way back into shape in October and November. When Horford wasn’t playing any stints longer than six minutes at a time, Pero was ready to fill in the gaps, whether those minutes came with the starters or the bench.

The flexibility of having centers who can both roll and pop

Saturday, the Hawks faced their most daunting game of the season in the second of back-to-back road games. While Atlanta was in the Mountain Time Zone beating Utah Friday night, the Portland Trail Blazers were home resting and waiting. Coming into the game, the Trail Blazers owned the second-best record in the NBA (25-8) and were undefeated at home against the Eastern Conference (9-0).

The Trail Blazers did have one flaw in their armor coming into the game: Regular starting center Robin Lopez was sidelined with a broken hand. Against the Hawks — the rare NBA team with two centers, Horford and Antic, who are equally adept scoring at the rim or via the jump shot — Portland would be tested in the front court.

Antic described the Hawks’ nightly plan of attack — for Portland or any other team — as follows:

“We have a system and we can agree before the game, “Should I roll? Should I pop?” It depends on the team, who we play. And that’s how we play. We try the system. Whatever Coach Bud says, that’s what we do.”

Against Portland and their compromised rim protection without Lopez, the strategy was to roll. Point guard Jeff Teague found Antic rolling for a pair of typical Hawks-ian baskets.

There will be plenty of nights when Antic’s job is to sit up top and provide an outside threat, but on this one, he showed he roll and finish too.

The challenge

“For me it’s always been about challenges,” Antic noted. “Challenges lead me forward in basketball and life.”

Antic wasn’t a 31-year-old rookie by accident last year. Teams had made offers to bring him to the NBA before, and he had turned them down. His motivation now is the challenge of winning.

“It was a big challenge to come to the NBA. I had offers to come two other times, but I always chose the financial offers in Europe.

“I knew the European style, but I needed to know the NBA style, just to see if I can play here. I didn’t want be anywhere in life where I had chances, but I didn’t take them, so I wanted to see what I can do here.”

Right now, Antic is doing plenty, and his primary challenge is to keep playing as well as he already has been playing. If he does, he’ll get that Rising Stars nod whether he pays it any attention or not.