Editor's Note: Damir Radenović was born in Slovenia and is a knowledgeable basketball mind who covers the sport in his native language at www.kosarka.si. Also, he's a color commentator for NBA games on Sportklub (Slovenian sports TV).
I'll let Radenović take it from here, but you can learn more about him at the bottom of this post.
Be sure to follow him on Twitter--click this link. --ZacharyBD
The 2014-15 season just ended for the Minnesota Timberwolves and, aside from maybe one player, Andrew Wiggins, there was not a lot to be excited about. Wiggins, who is going to be a STAR, is in serious need of a supporting cast. Here's what the Wolves have around him right now.
- Nikola Peković: One injury away from everyone giving up on him.
- Ricky Rubio: Same as above.
- Kevin Martin: Never found out how to play defense.
- Anthony Bennett: Thank you for taking him away from my Cavs, Flip. (oh yes, I've been a Cavs fan since 1986).
- Zach LaVine: Might be good someday, but must change positions. He. Is. Not. A. Point. Guard.
- Gorgui Dieng: Needs to improve (especially defensively) but could be a real asset in the future.
- Shabazz Muhammad: Will be of great help if development continues at the rate it was going before he was injured.
With the highest odds of getting the #1 overall pick and guarenteed to pick among the top-4, Minnesota will bolster the roster in this year's NBA draft. But it's time for a reminder: The Wolves already have talent stashed in Europe that should be deployed next season. He was taken #35 overall in 2010 (Washington Wizards) but has yet to make the jump into the NBA. His name is Nemanja Bjelica, and the Wolves could really use his services next season.
Many in Minnesota may have read lots about Nemanja this year, especially after rumors surfaced of his intentions to go to the NBA, as the Wolves own his rights. Others might remember his performance at the 2014 World Cup Final in Spain, where his country, Serbia, was defeated by Team USA in a battle for the gold medal. Bjelica lead the Serbs in scoring in a losing effort as the Americans won handedly, 129-92.
Knowledgable basketball minds have scouted and assessed Nemanja's game and the findings have been well documented. But what do we know about his life path, or his personality? Probably not enough.
Nemanja's basketball story is very interesting and plays a great role in who he is as a player today. He's a city kid who was born in present-day Serbia in 1988 and lived in a big block complex in Belgrade, the type of buildings with small apartments, built in the communist Yugoslavia, for all the factory workers who were coming to work to the big cities. These kind of architectural monsters look like those pictured below. (The population of Belgrade's metropolitan area is over 2 million people.)
Nemanja lived in a building called "Blok 70" and, like many kids from Serbia, he started playing basketball on the streets around his block. He played as much as possible. But living in these complexes can be very dangerous as there are many obstacles to raising a child into a person with good future. Lack of finances, drugs, street fights, theft, and all other negatives of living in a place like this can be demanding on a person.
Nemanja had a good home upbringing and used basketball as an outlet to stay off the streets and thus out of trouble. He first played the organized game with Partizan, a famous club team of which Peković once played with, before it was decided that no player with the club born in 1988 was talented enough to continue with the program. Partizan, known for developing great European and NBA players (more than a dozen players from Partizan have played in the NBA) allowed Nemanja and all players from that birth year walk. For them this was a swing and a miss.
Disappointed, though still determined to become a great ball player Nemanja joined a different club, KK Superfund, before leaving Serbia in 2007 to play professionally in Austria. Yes, Austria, land of alpine skiing and ski jumping, where the basketball is about as good as the United States Pesäpallo team (if there is one). Under the instruction of his former agent, Bojan Tanjević, Nemanja continued working on his game while with Arkadia Traiskirchen Lions, an Austrian club you'll probably never remember after reading this article.
He worked on his game relentlessly and, every summer, returned to Serbia during offseason time to dedicate himself to strength and conditioning.
Nemanja went back to Belgrade to play for Crvena Zvezda ("Red Star") after he received a call from a legendary Serbian and European coach, Svetislav Pešić. He saw something in the lanky kid and, even to this day, Nemanja considers Pešić his second father. Nemanja claims he'd still be playing in the Austrian league had it not been for Svetislav.
What coach Pešić did then took a lot of courage--he gave 20-year-old Nemanja the ball, the freedom to create, and named him a point guard! At 6'10 only legendary (well at least for us, Europeans) Toni Kukoč could do that.
That's when the rise of Nemanja Bjelica really began.
In the beginning he made mistakes but Pešić was patient with him. This took guts; Crvena Zvezda is a big Serbian club where only trophies and titles count. Yet, Pešić did a big favor to the Serbian National Basketball Team by creating a versatile basketball player who can basically play all positions!
In 2009, Nemanja started playing with the Serbs national and, at a very young age, became one of the pillars of their success. The Serbian National Team took Silver at the European Championship in Poland that year, Nemanja's first with the team. But in 2010, after two seasons in Belgrade, it was time for him to face stronger competition.
Nemanja faced a choice: he could join Olympiacos (Greece) or Laboral Kutxa (Spain). Many thought he was headed for Greece as Olympiacos was coached by Dušan Ivkovićalso, coach of the Serbian National Team at the time, but instead, surprisingly, Nemanja joined Laboral Kutxa where he would learn under Montenegrin head coach, Duško Ivanović.
Ivanović had been a well known coach that turned heads as a player with Croatian club Jugoplastika, a three time European club champion. He's very well known for his early morning practices, which involved physically tough training with Spartan discipline and long hours. That's what Nemanja wanted--continuous hard work and improvement that would help make him a better player.
Nemanja's career really took off after he signed a contract with Fenerbahce (Turkey) in 2013. He became one of the brightest stars of Euroleague under the tutelage of Fenerbahce's head coach, Željko Obradović (a fellow Serb and 8 time European Champion who was said to be a candidate for the Detroit Pistons head coaching job, before they hired Stan Van Gundy). It's there that Nemanja is posting best numbers in his career--12.2 PTS, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 steals while shooting 58.4% from the field, 34.3% from the three point line and 69,8% from the FT line.
He really stepped up his game when it mattered most, during the Euroleague Playoffs, where Nemanja has put up 11 PTS and 13.5 rebounds per game. At 27 years old his resume is very impressive, as he's gained loads of experience in international competition. Here are a few of his accolades.
- Named the 2014-15 Euroleague March MVP
- Named the 2012-13 Euroleague Week-10 MVP
- Member of the Serbian National Team
- Won the silver medal at the 2009 European Championship
- Won the silver medal at the 2014 World Championship
- Played at the 2010 World Championship
- Played at the 2011 and 2013 European Championships
- Won the 2013-14 Turkish National Championship with Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul
- Won the 2013 Turkish President Cup with Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul
- Has been member of the Serbia & Montenegro U-18 National Team
- Has been member of the Serbian University National Team
- Won the gold medal at the 2009 World University Games
Is Nemanja Bjelica NBA ready? Mentally, he definitely is.
A 27-year-old, mature and calm, Nemanja grew up in a somewhat unpleasant living environment but was raised by his mother Slavica (a nurse) and father Milovan the right way. His parents instilled respect and other core human and moral values everyone should be taught.
Nemanja, a well grounded person who still hangs out with his childhood friends, spent the first money he had earned playing basketball on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He got married at quite a young age (24) to his girlfriend Mirjana and is the father to a 4-year-old daughter named Nika. Fun fact: Nenad Krstić (captain of the Serbian national team and former NBA player who played for the Nets, Thunder, and Celtics) was Nemanja's best man.
Nemanja met Mirjana in circumstances which should make one believe it was an act of faith.
While playing in Austria, Nemanja broke his leg. After the cast was taken of, he requested to go to Belgrade for two weeks to do some additional rehabilitation--he met Mirjana on January 1st, 2008 at a party on New Year's Eve. Nemanja says that he is glad he broke his leg because that's how he met his wife, although you can imagine how disappointed a young basketball player is when this happens to him.
Is Nemanja Bjelica NBA ready basketball wise?
It is only this author's subjective opinion, but Nemanja is certainly ready for the NBA. He can play multiple positions, has all necessary fundamental basketball skills, and can blend into every team.
Nemanja can switch on pick-and-rolls due to his ability to guard perimeter players. He is sometimes sloppy with his stance and doesn't have the type of lateral quickness to keep small, quick attacking guards in front of him but shows himself consistently capable of staying in the play and challenging really well at the rim due to his mobility and length. Nemanja does excellent work on the boards, and is an elite athlete for his position in the European game, which provides him an edge reacting faster and jumping higher than the average competition.
His offensive skill-set is the most intriguing aspect of his game, though. Nemanja possesses good ball skills and passing instincts. When an opponent tries matching up his athleticism by going small and defending him with a perimeter player, his high vantage point helps him see over smaller defenders. At his height he can run a pick-and-roll and vast majority of his assists led to scores at the rim or from three-point range. Nemanja can't attack the corner off the bounce with much speed but is quite fast on straight line drives, uses his 225-pound frame to protect the ball well and can play above the rim. Also, he is an above average catch-and-shoot player from long distance but still needs work on pull-up shots. Nemanja is capable of rebounding outside of his area due to length and activity.
Like many other European players, Nemanja will have to go through the adjustment period while transitioning to the NBA. He'll have to improve his conditioning to be able to go through physically demanding seasons. But, overall, he has all the qualities necessary to someday become a stretch-4 that can make an impact in the NBA and on the Timberwolves future.
Most of all, T'Wolves fans will love him for the person he is and for the values he will bring to the franchise. Also, Nikola Peković will surely show Nemanja Bjelica the ropes which will make the transition from Europe to the United States and the NBA much easier.
Or will it?☺
About the Author: Damir Radenović began playing basketball at age 11 with a club called Ilirija (same place Goran Dragic started his career) and spent six seasons with Olimpija (88-94) before landing a scholarship at Mayville State University in North Dakota. He returned to Slovenia after graduating with a B.Sc. degree in Business Administration and currently works in marketing. In addition, Radenović plays in the Slovenian 3rd basketball league.
Radenović keeps in contact with (and has competed against) former Timberwolf and countrymen, Rasho Nesterovic--now the General Secretary of Slovenian Basketball Association. Both were born in 1976.