When underperforming Chase Budinger was traded in July, the Wolves received little-known small forward Damjan Rudez from the Indiana Pacers in return. The move saved the Wolves almost $4 million in salary, and many analysts expected Damjan to be waived. However, Flip Saunders quickly announced plans to keep the 29-year old Rudez.
Damjan's road to the NBA wasn't an easy one. Starting out with a second-league team in his home country of Croatia at 16, Rudez was quickly lauded as a potential NBA prospect due to his good size, athleticism, and shooting touch. However he never was able to realize this potential. After a particularly underwhelming performance at the 2006 FIBA U-20 Europe tournament where Damjan finished seventh on his Croatian national team in scoring, DraftExpress wrote, "[Rudez is] probably too much of an underachiever, and this tournament has been no exception." Packaged as a 6'10" shooter who could play both the 3 and the 4, Rudez wasn't selected at the 2008 draft two years later.
After almost a decade of playing against inferior competition with 6 different teams across Europe, Damjan finally got the chance to play in the best league in Europe when Liga ABC's CAI Zaragoza signed him in 2012. Over the next two seasons in Spain, Damjan finally bloomed. In 67 league games between 2012-2014, Rudez averaged 10.8 PPG in only 23.6 minutes a night, shooting 42.8% from 3 on 267 attempts. Rudez had found his niche as a 3-point specialist, and the Indiana Pacers, having taken notice, offered him a team-friendly 3-year deal in the summer of 2014.
Damjan didn't make much noise with the Pacers during his rookie season in 2014-15. He only averaged 4.8 PPG in a little over 15 minutes a night, and didn't provide much in terms of rebounding or defense—especially for somebody with his size. But, Damjan was able to pick up in the NBA where he left off in Spain. His mark of 40.6% from 3 for the year was good for 17th in the league last year among qualified players, and easily the best mark for a rookie. Rudez was also lights out from the corner, converting on 50.8% of his 3-point attempts from the corner. Even on mid-range shots, Damjan was impressive. According to Basketball-Reference, his marks on both mid-range jumpers (54.5%) and long-2's (51%) were actually high enough to warrant attempting the worst shots in basketball.
Rudez's numbers are much more impressive when viewed through the lens of the system he played in. The Indiana Pacers were one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA last season. Missing franchise player Paul George for most of the year, the Pacers were 23th out of 30th in offensive efficiency. While Indiana's starters floundered without George, the crew Damjan found himself playing with was even worse. According to Basketball-Reference, the 4 players Rudez played the majority of his minutes with were Luis Scola (595 out of 1047 possible minutes), Ian Mahinmi (511), C.J. Watson (460), and Lavoy Allen (420). Not exactly a group of efficient offensive counterparts to rely on for creating open shots. Though the Timberwolves offense was dreadful for most of last year, Damjan should see more open looks in Minnesota with Rubio, Miller, and Jones passing him the ball.
His full-season marks are impressive, but the real reason to get excited about Rudez is the heater he went on after the All-Star break. Connecting on 31 of his final 61 attempts from downtown, a 50.8% mark, Rudez trailed only Steph Curry and Jimmy Butler in 3P% among players with at least 40 attempted. That mark coupled with great shooting inside the arc and from the line (15 for 27 from 2, 3 of 3 from the line) led to an amazing TS% of 70.5%. This percentage was tops in the NBA post All-Star break, and it wasn't even close. The closest players to this mark were Jeremy Evans (68.6%) and Steph Curry (67.1%). Damjan's percentage during this time was actually higher than league-leader Kyle Korver's for the entire season at 69.9%. If Rudez were to have kept this mark the entire season, accroding to Basketball-Reference it would've been the 4th higher TS% of all-time for player who have played in at least 50 games.
While 25 games is a small sample size, it does provide a glimpse as to what Rudez brings to to the table. It takes most rookies some time to become acclimated to the NBA, and shooting is often is the least-transferable skill for newcomers to the league. For comparison, fellow Liga ACB veteran Nikola Mirotic shot considerably worse in his rookie year (31.6%) versus his time in Spain (39.8% in league play over his last 2 seasons). While Damjan probably won't replicate his stellar post-All Star Break performance, his pure, easily-repeatable shooting stroke and high basketball IQ bodes well for his ability to produce in an off-the-bench role for the Timberwolves, if he is able to make the team.
With Anthony Bennett's buy-out the Wolves figure to have Rudez and point guard Lorenzo Brown fighting it out for the 15th and final roster spot. While Brown has many supporters following his deliverance from the Zach LaVine point guard experiment at the conclusion of the year, the easy choice is Rudez. Brown doesn't have a single skill that is above replacement level for the NBA, and at 25-years old he's not likely to get much better. On a roster that already has 3 point guards, the need for Brown is very much diminished. While Brown is nice to have as a safety-blanket in case anything goes wrong with Rubio, Miller, and/or Jones, there is simply no reason to roster 4 pure point guards.
On the other hand, Damjan Rudez could fill a need for the Wolves, and creates flexibility that Lorenzo Brown simply doesn't provide. On a team that finished 25th in 3P% and 30th in 3PM, Damjan can provide spacing and demand attention from help side defenders, which the Wolves desperately need. Rudez's 3-point shooting would allow more room for Wiggins to operate in the low/mid-post and more space for Rubio to operate on pick-and-rolls. On top of that, he can play 3 positions. Though he played both forward positions for his entire career in Europe, and even occasionally played center in Spain, Rudez was also able to have some success playing shooting guard towards the end of the year with Indiana. Both of his starts came at the 2, and his size meant he was able to shoot over smaller guards without much problem, which created match-up issues for opposing teams.
While Rudez's defense will probably leave something to be desired, a competent rim-protector could help to ease some of his mistakes. When Damjan is in the corner, he demands attention on defensive rotations, something the Wolves do not have enough of currently. Towards the end of the year he even showed the passing instincts that had him average 3.2 assists per 40 minutes in his final season in Spain. He won't create much off the dribble for himself, but he has nice counters off pump fakes and jabs to be a threat off a dribble or two.
When it all comes together, Rudez can provide lifts that most teams wouldn't expect out of their deep bench player.