To say the 2015-16 season has not gone the way that the Minnesota Timberwolves had hoped it would for rookie forward Nemanja Bjelica would be an understatement. The Wolves' franchise and fans held high expectations for the 27-year-old, former EuroLeague most valuable player, who the team acquired in a draft day trade with the Washington Wizards in 2010; the main hope was that he would be able to take over the starting power forward role for future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett at some point during the season. Needless to say, that hasn't happened.
During his time in Europe, Bjelica possessed skills that many power forwards simply don't have: he had a proficient handle, could hit threes at a decent clip, and was a deft passer; he was simultaneously both a point and stretch forward in his two seasons playing for Fenerbahce Ulker. His skill set is one that is coveted by teams and, in addition to receiving the MVP award for the 2014-15 season, was a major reason why the Wolves wanted to bring him aboard this season.
By and large, Bjelica's success overseas hasn't translated to the NBA. As of this writing, he is averaging 4.5 points per game on 42.9% shooting from the field in 824 minutes and is only attempting 2.1 three-point shots per game. For contrast, last season in Europe Bjelica averaged 12.1 points on 50.0% shooting in 805 minutes and attempted 2.6 threes per game. So, what gives? Why hasn't Bjelica's success found its way over to the United States yet?
The major difference between these two iterations of Bjelica comes in a rather ironic area: two-point shots. With Fenerbahce, Bjelica averaged nearly six two-point shots per game (on which he shot 56.4%) while with the Wolves he is averaging only 1.6 two-point shots per game (in which he is shooting 52.7%). To say it differently, in Europe, Bjelica's two-point shot to three-point shot ratio was 2.3:1, while in the NBA it is .76:1. Now, put down the pitch forks, this data is not saying that Bjelica should be taking more inefficient two-point shots. But what this data does show backs up what many have felt all season: Nemanja Bjelica isn't being utilized properly on offense.
Below is film featuring Bjelica during his time at Fenerbahce. It should be noted that this is a highlight film, not a breakdown, but overall it should still get the point across.
There is one major thing of note in this video: recognize how often Bjelica finds holes in the defense, either by cutting without the ball or driving with it. These holes are often created when teams push the ball and have good ball movement around the perimeter in the half-court.
The Wolves currently sit at 20th in the league in pace of play, according to NBA.com, and their ball movement can often be described as abhorrent. By pushing the ball, Bjelica was able to take advantage of the weak points in the transitioning defense and shoot open, highly efficient shots near the rim (i.e. dunks and layups). The talent level in the NBA is much higher than that in Europe, so getting out and pushing the ball may not lead to as many of these looks for Bjelica, especially if going up against a stout defense, but good ball movement would still benenfit him to a degree; no one need look any farther than teams like the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs.
And herein lies the crux of the issue surrounding Nemanja Bjelica's disappointing season: interim head coach Sam Mitchell's offense does not emphasize action that would utilize Bjelica's strengths. Mitchell has caught flack all season for his lack of three-pointers, and that applies to Bjelica as well, but the greater crime committed in this situation is the lack of ball movement. A new system that emphasizes ball movement and spacing would do wonders for Bjelica's overall play and confidence.
Utilizing off ball cuts and drives with Bjelica would allow him to get looks near the hoop once again, get to the line more often, and build his confidence early in the game. To an extent, Bjelica was perhaps mislabeled as a sharp shooting big man; in his career in Europe, Bjelica converted 35.1% of his threes on 2.8 attempts per game, in the NBA he's shooting 35.4% on 2.1 attempts per game, so having him simply shoot more threes won't solve his confidence issues. And that's not to say that Bjelica shouldn't be shooting more threes, however, putting him in a position in which the shots come closer to the basket at first may have positive effects on his three-point shooting as well.
Quite frankly, Nemanja Bjelica has too much natural talent and skill to not succeed to some extent in the NBA. We've seen this before: even relatively mature European players can take time to adjust to the NBA game. It remains to be seen if Bjelica will develop into a starter in the league and, at age 27, the clock is ticking. But Bjelica definitely has the skill to at least be a productive player off the bench, it's just up to the team to best put him in a position to utilize that skill. It's also up to Bjelica to aggressively seize his opportunities.
Bjelica is returning to action tonight in Oklahoma City following his somewhat confusing foot injury that has kept him sidelined since the All-Star break. Hopefully over the last stretch of the season we see more signs of the terrific all-around player he was in Europe over the last couple of years.