We need wing help. You know we need wing help. I know I need wing help. My mother doesn't watch the Wolves, but based on the phone calls I've made to her... she knows we need wing help. We have been looking for the next Salvador to come to town and give us something resembling the NBA average in production at the SF or SG positions. We have spoken ad nauseum about the merits of Nic Batum vs. Eric Gordon. We can't have a single game recap without discussing whether Wes going 2-5 is a "great" game or just a "less suck" game. We have multiple posters pining for Malcolm Lee to get into the starting lineup by the end of the season. This is without ever having seen our 2nd round pick play against NBA players. We're desperate. Well, in our latest edition of "Oh yeah, we have that guy" allow me to refresh your memories with Nemanja Bjelica.
For those new fans of the Wolves (welcome aboard) or those who simply forgot... With the 35th pick in the 2010 draft we acquired a 22 year old Serbian small forward by the name of Nemanja Bjelica (draftexpress profile). He has been described as having "a power forward body with a point guard skillset" by some draft analysts and as having an "enchanting youthful enthusiasm with a quasi-Flynnian smile" by David Kahn, probably. Those of us who wanted to see what the fuss was about cracked open the youtube machine. Some of us fell in love with a highlight reel that appeared to be filmed by a calculator with a soundtrack that just won't stop loving us back (watch if only for the adorable 1-second cameo at 4:24). Those of us who remembered his name 3 months after the draft were treated to this beautiful performance (the soundtrack will please anyone who likes Eminem but hates his voice or lyrics). Obviously, time passed and it became apparent that we had no intention of bringing in Bjelica immediately from the Adriatic League. He signed a 5 year deal (the deal included a 2 year out. This is a very important parenthetical addition, so don't skim over this part) with Caja Laboral of the Spanish ACB and was never heard from again, kind of.
Remember that 2 year out? It's been nearly 2 years! We can finally start outwardly pondering the merits of adding Bjelica to the roster. Let's get into it.
Our young European prospects seem to have a bad habit of picking teams in which their skills will stagnate rather than flourish. Caja Laboral was the ACB champion the season before he opted to sign with them. They are headed by a very strict, tedious coach in Dusko Ivanovic. The stars of the team are 6'9" stretch PF named Mirza Teletovic, and reigning ACB MVP Fernando San Emeterio at SF. Ivanovic has a tendency to sit first year players in favor of guys who have a history with his system, so we knew that Bjelica wouldn't get much burn last season. Optimists hoped for a breakout this year, but with San Emeterio firmly entrenched in a 30 MPG role (in a 40 minute game) there wasn't much hope for Bjelica to shine, even with the positional versatility he offers. So once again Wolves fans are stuck with a difficult conundrum. We are stuck scouting a talented young player who is riding the pine of a team who doesn't need him, playing for a coach who doesn't use him, and we are wondering if he could have an impact in the NBA.
The bright side of the situation is that he has not necessarily disappointed with the playing time given to him. Going from the Adriatic league to the ACB is a solid jump in competition, and Bjelica hasn't been overwhelmed by it. When we drafted him he came off a season in which he shot 36% from deep, and 50% total, and that was the first year he showed 3-point range professionally. Some were worried about whether it was a sustainable skill, or merely a fluke. Last season between ACB and Euroleague he shot 23/41 from 2 (56%) and 15/39 from 3 for a just under 40% clip. Most felt he played very well despite the lack of playing time. However, late in the season he broke a bone in his hand, and remained out for the year.
That broken bone sapped much of his summer, but he was able to make his return to Eurobasket competition. He certainly looked rusty, and that reflected in his stats for that competition. His numbers were nothing like when he tore up the FIBA Championships in 2010, when he shot 67% including 54% from deep (7/13). His early numbers in 2011-2012 ACB competition suffered as well. He's shot very poorly in limited time in the ACB (8/42 from deep) while shooting well in Euroleague competition (9/19). He's shot 20/45 on 2's in the ACB while going 9/13 in Euroleague. However, if you'll take a look at his ACB Game Log you'll notice that his playing time, and effectiveness are both trending upwards since his 13th game (for those who didn't click the link, they've played 20 league games this year). Perhaps this new confidence his coach is showing in him is rubbing off on his on-court play, and he's turning a corner this year to a strong finish. In this 7 game stretch he has averaged 6.1 points and 4.3 rebounds in 17.4 minutes a game. Those are certainly modest numbers, but if that kind of per-minute production is sustainable for him on the 3rd best team in the ACB who has a very rigid offense, then we might have a decent player on our hands once we get him in the open floor.
Given his injuries, his limited playing time, and his stats that neither amaze, nor scare you away it almost feels like the most fair way to judge Bjelica is by using his original scouting report (even though NBAdraft.net kinda sucks, this gives you a feel for his skillset).
We have a couple of options with Bjelica. We can try to "save" him from Caja Laboral next year, and bring him over for a bench role. He has the offensive skillset to flourish under Adelman's offense, as a potentially natural replacement to the role Beasley's struggling to fill off the bench. There's no guarantee he would produce positively for us, but the risk (very low price, and a roster spot would be the cost) might be worth the reward if he steps in and gives us a trustworthy catch and shoot option with driving ability who can add a few steals and rebounds. He's not a great defender, but his errors tend to be more based on concentration errors (which Adelman seems to have had success alleviating from most of our players).
The other option would be to wait on Bjelica to see if he develops in Spain. He has three years left on his contract for Caja Laboral, and while there's a lot more player movement in Europe, Teletovic and San Emeterio are both young and have both been cornerstones for Caja Laboral for the past few years. His best chance at breaking into the normal rotation is if SG Brad Oleson leaves after 2013, opening up a spot for Bjelica at SF by moving San Emeterio to SG. However, if no situation arises in which he can receive more minutes, he may become a non-asset for us. The other possibility worth mentioning would be that a different Spanish team to buy out his contract and play him in a more central role until we can better understand what type of player he is. If he becomes something worth bringing over, we'll have to pay him a higher contract and still take on the risk that his game doesn't translate very well to the NBA.
Although I do hope we bring Bjelica over next season, this post is not necessarily meant to be a thought-out, reasoned explanation as to why. I was just hoping to get the conversation restarted about him, because I can't recall seeing his name mentioned in about 9 months. Anybody been watching him this year? Is he playing better than his stats show? Am I too hopeful? Does he actually exist? Has Kahn talked to his parents in a while? Do he, Pek, and Darko go to karaoke together on Thursdays in the offseason? Hath thou any more better knowledge?