The Minnesota Timberwolves have had themselves a nice off-season after finishing with the worst record in the NBA last season, building their foundation for the future by drafting Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones with the first and 24th picks, and then signing 27-year old Serbian big man Nemanja Bjelica to a three-year, $11.7 million contract.
Bjelica will finally make his NBA debut with the Timberwolves five years after Minnesota acquired him in 2010 draft night trade that sent the 23rd pick in the draft, Trevor Booker, to the Washington Wizards for the 30th pick (Lazar Hayward) and 35th pick (Bjelica).
Playing the last two seasons for the Turkish team Fenerbahçe Ülker, Bjelica rose to prominence, winning the 2015 Euroleague MVP after leading his to team to the semi-finals before falling to CSKA Moscow. Now he’ll be joining the Timberwolves, hoping to make an impact under head coach Flip Saunders and prove his game will translate to the NBA.
His success at the highest levels of Europe should give the organization hope that holding onto Bjelica for the past couple of seasons has finally paid off, and that he can step in and quickly become a rotation player.
The analytics rate Bjelica highly relative to other foreign prospects whose rights are held by NBA teams, with ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton projecting him as one of the better draft-and-stash players heading into this season (Insider Access required), ranked third among such players in projected win percentage.
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With all the positive press, how much should the team and fans expect from Bjelica in his rookie season as the Timberwolves continue to rebuild?
At 6’10”, Bjelica has the requisite size to play in the NBA as a power forward, but the rest of his physical tools are merely passable relative to NBA players, which should temper expectations somewhat.
Bjelica has nice open court speed for a player his size, using long strides that allow him to get up and down the floor easily and beat his defender to the rim, but won’t overwhelm opponents with athleticism; he isn’t particularly long, nor does he possess the type of explosiveness found in NBA athletes. He’s big, but doesn’t complement that size with great strength, and at his age, he may not be able to add it to his frame. He’ll face an uphill battle to match the athleticism of NBA players, but physically overwhelming opponents was never his strength and he will need to rely on his skills to continue his success on the court as a valuable rotation player.
While some may want to label him as a stretch four from the onset, he will have to improve his outside shooting to justify the label. Bjelica’s release point isn’t always consistent, which leads to many inaccurate shots. And with NBA defenses closing out faster, he’ll be stressed to find more uniformity in this area to improve his percentages.
Bjelica moves well without the ball, putting himself in good spots on the floor, but he needs to be more confident in his shot, as his form is better when he catches and shoots in a single motion than when he hesitates for a beat or two after the catch. Fortunately he should get plenty of open looks spacing the floor around Rick Rubio’s dribble penetration or Towns and Andrew Wiggins in the post.
He isn’t a consistent three-point shooter yet, but does flash potential, shooting 39 percent on 2.6 attempts in Euroleague competition. However, he shot just 34.7 percent on 2.6 attempts in domestic competition, and what level of shooter he will be against NBA defenses remains to be seen.
Fortunately Bjelica is more than just a shooter, showcasing the ability to put the ball on the floor and create offense. While not a perfect comparison, someone with a similar skill set would be Boris Diaw, showing the skills of a guard in the body of a big man. Bjelica will likely stay paired with Nikola Pekovic or Towns, opening up the offense. It might also be worth a shot to give him some burn in small lineups full of ball handlers and shot creators just to see if anything is there.
His versatility starts with his ability to handle the ball in the open court—Bjelica was utilized in a point guard role in Europe when he was younger—and create plays for teammates. He isn’t lightning quick off the bounce, and he won’t be breaking many defenders down off the dribble, but he is a capable enough ball handler to not turn the it over or make bad decisions on a regular basis.
The Timberwolves do have two dynamic transition point guards in Rubio and Jones, so Bjelica won’t be asked to take the ball end-to-end after securing the rebound, as he has been wont to do in Europe. But the Wolves ranked eighth in pace and 15th in percentage of transition possessions last year, so there is room for him to provide value in the open floor.
Bjelica will have to learn to pick his spots, as he lacks the foot speed to get past his defender regularly and the elusiveness to maneuver in traffic, tending to drive in straight lines. In the half court he has a tendency to have tunnel vision for the rim—as opposed to in transition where he keeps his head on a swivel and shows creative passing—and can miss open teammates, especially as the defense swarms him. In order to adjust to the NBA, he will need to recognize when he has a mismatch in terms of quickness or when the floor is open enough to drive to the rim, where he’s an excellent finisher; relying on high-arcing layups over defenders’ outstretched arms and possessing a soft enough touch to convert.
It will be interesting to see how he creates off the dribble in the NBA as he settles into more of a supporting player’s role. He should look to become more of a creator for others, especially considering the players around him. If he can attack closeouts against slower defenders, he has displayed the vision necessary to be an excellent passer, he just needs to show it on a consistent basis.
Defensively, Bjelica will need to show Saunders who he can guard on a consistent basis. He lacks the speed and agility to guard small forwards but isn’t strong enough to defend some post players. And while he’ll get into his stance defensively and work hard, he needs to improve his footwork, as he has a tendency to take too long of a stride or get his feet crossed, compounding his slow lateral movement. Even at his size, Bjelica won’t be a rim protector, blocking just one shot per 40 minutes (pace adjusted) in the Euroleague, and the Timberwolves are lacking in that department unless Towns develops quickly as a rookie.
Where he should help immediately is on the boards. The Timberwolves were one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the NBA last year, collecting just 71.6 percent of opponents’ misses. In Europe, Bjelica was one of the top rebounders with a 30.62 defensive rebounding percentage. He attacks the glass and, despite his average explosiveness, can beat opponents to loose balls outside his area with great instincts for where the ball will come off the rim. Bjelica won’t be the leading rebounder on the team, but he should help the Timberwolves out of the basement in that statistical category.
Already 27, Bjelica may not light the league on fire or develop into a star, but he has the physical and mental maturity to help the team right away, and the potential to be a nice complementary player alongside a promising young core of Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns. If Saunders can find the right role for BJelica and incorporate his skills into the offensive system, he should eventually help get the team back to the playoffs and on a rebuilding track already well underway five years ago when the team traded for him.
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