Looking for upside? Meet Nemanja Bjelica

This is easily the best international drafting we've ever done. Prestes is a big guy with sky high efficiency that draws a lot of comparisons to the NBA's other Brazillian, Nene (Hilario). But Nemanja Bjelica is the real gem here.


Bjelica has a skillset you really only see once or twice in a generation. Extraordinarily versatile player…that’s what garners the comparisons to Toni Kukoc. He’s basically a point guard with the smoothness of a shooting guard in the body of a power forward.

Kukoc was the Lamar Odom of his era (but with, y’know, motivation). A phenomenal sigular talent who could do literally everything on the court. In his best pro season (which also happened to be his last in Chicago), Kukoc averaged 18.8 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.3 assists, and at times, played every position on the floor.


Last season, Bjelica averaged 9.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 25 minutes in the Adriatic League (8.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2 assists in Eurocup play). His AL numbers roughly translate to 8 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists in the NBA (or essentially 11.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists per 36) And in that he's only 22 years old, one would figure those numbers will significantly improve over the next few years.

I watched four of Bjelica's Eurobasket games this past against Slovania, one against Lithuania, and two against Spain (although he played very limited minutes against Spain both times)....and was impressed by the completeness of his game. He's very skilled at everything except three point shooting, and his ballhandling and court vision are incredible for a player his size.


There's been questions about his contract situation. My answer is: I don't know. His home team, Red Star Belgrade, is in serious financial trouble similar to Rubio's DKV Joventut. There are conflicting reports about whether Bjelica signed a 3 year deal with Italy's Benetton Treviso...if he did, that deal has a $1 million buyout after each season, so it's very manageable. However, many of you probably noticed that Bjelica was, in fact, present at the Wolves' post-draft press conference along with Wes Johnson and Lazar Hayward, and there have been some posts on the Wolves' Facebook page and Wolves Nation feed (which I haven't been able to confirm) that say Bjelica is indeed going to play for us this year.

I'm going to try and get confirmation of that situation from Zgoda or my contact with the team.

Bjelica isn’t really 100% NBA ready, but he won’t get run over either and there’s very little he can’t do on the court. He's 6'10" with good length and athleticism, and various circumstances, play any position. There's a world of potential here not only for him as an individual player, but as a guy who can fundamentally change the team with what he can do on the court.

Bjelica's agent Herb Rudoy (a mega-Euro agent who represents NBA players Manu Ginobili, Luol Deng, Fabricio Oberto and Marc Gasol, as well as future NBA players Tiago Splitter, Donatas Motiejunas, and...hey, Nemanja Bjelica) told DraftExpress' Jonothan Givoney that he was "getting tremendous feedback" from NBA teams over Bjelica on draft night. So I think landing him is a real victory for us. I have a feeling that 2 or 3 years from now, everyone will be talking about how great a pick this was for us.

Speaking of DX, here's part of their profile on Bjelica:

One of the most unique players in this year’s draft class in terms of the rare combination of skills he possesses as a 6-10 guard, few prospects evoke such a wide array of opinions as Red Star Belgrade’s Nemanja Bjelica.

Possessing outstanding height at 6-10, to go along with an average frame, wingspan and overall athleticism, Bjelica is essentially a point guard trapped in a power forward’s body. He possesses an average first step by NBA standards and isn’t particularly explosive, but is an extremely fluid and coordinated player with a very unique skill-set.

Bjelica’s biggest strengths revolve around his terrific ball-handling ability and passing skills. He can grab a rebound and take the ball coast to coast without the slightest bit of hesitation, and is extremely dangerous creating shot-opportunities for himself and others out of pick and roll situations. He does an excellent job of finding the open man in transition, and makes some extremely creative drive and dish passes thanks to his terrific court vision. Watching him play, it doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that his feel for the game is obviously very good.

While his first step is nothing to write home about, Bjelica’s unique timing, ability to go left or right and extremely long strides makes him an intriguing mismatch threat at the European level. On top of that, he’s the type of player who has great confidence in his abilities and wants to take responsibilities for his team, being very aggressive looking to make things happen, particularly in clutch moments.

The fact that he can create off the dribble and get his shot off at his size puts a lot of pressure on the defense, particularly when operating at the power forward position like he does quite a bit at Red Star. At this juncture that doesn’t always result in high percentage shot opportunities for himself or his teammates, though.

As talented and creative a ball-handler as Bjelica is, his decision making skills still need a significant amount of work, as we can tell by his incredibly high turnover rate, coughing the ball up on 26% of his possessions in the Adriatic League. He tends to overestimate his shot-creating ability quite a bit, dribbling the ball into traffic with his head down, trying to get too fancy with his passes, and making careless turnovers in the process.

He has a lot of trouble finishing around the basket in traffic as well due to his lack of strength and explosiveness, something that will likely become much more pronounced against the far more athletic big men he’ll face in the NBA.

Only a 21-year old playing his second real season of professional basketball (he played for his agent’s team in Austria in 2007-2008), but already a contributing member of the Serbian National Team squad which reached the finals of the European Championships in Poland this past summer, Bjelica still obviously has a lot more room to grow as a player.

Players with his combination of size, skills and basketball IQ are quite rare, which is why many respected NBA scouts are very high on him, even if he has some glaring flaws to his game that must be addressed. Reportedly not being in a huge rush to make the jump to the NBA at this point, Bjelica is the type of player a team can draft and stash in Europe to see how he develops over the next few seasons, which makes him a solid candidate to hear his name called somewhere in the second round.

He's also a lot more popular overseas than I expected. When I went to find highlight videos of him, there was a huge list to choose from.

I know a lot of fans are disappointed by the lack of upside in Wes Johnson and Lazar Hayward (I'm not one of them, but hey, that's a different discussion). But for those who ARE looking for big upside out of this draft, here you have it. Nemanja Bjelica is your guy

LATE EDIT: I just watched part of the press conference Jerry Zgoda posted on the Star Tribune. Bjelica speaks fluent English, so we won't have a Goran Dragic/Serge Ibaka situation where he and the team can't understand each other

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