WS/48: .087, BPM: .3 (.5/-0.2 O/D); RPM: 0.14 (32nd among power forwards)
Best Case Scenario: Bjelica emerges as the stretch, play-making four the team needs and pushes for a starting job. Winds up playing 25+ minutes a night with improved defense, continues shooting threes well, and shows off more of his offensive versatility in his second year in the league.
Worst Case Scenario: It turns out he isn't good enough to play, falls out of the rotation, and becomes an afterthought and returns to Europe after the season.
Nemanja Bjelica was the 35th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Officially he was a Washington Wizards pick, but in fact the choice was made on behalf of the Wolves due to a draft night trade. He spent the next few seasons in Europe before finally emerging as a star in the 2014-15 season with Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce Ulker. He agreed to a three year deal with the Wolves last summer.
It was an up and down first season for Bjelica. He began the year as part of the rotation, and made some nice contributions early on, which was a bit of a bonus for a rookie in the NBA, no matter his age and professional experience. I vividly remember him being on the court in crunch time in the season opener against the Lakers, and his three pointer that seemed like the dagger before the Lakers made a late run and almost stole the game.
He soon fell off, however, becoming excessively tentative on the court. His confidence waned along with his effectiveness, and at one point he deservedly fell out of the rotation altogether. He recovered to finish the season strong, and seemed to gain some confidence from that. This can be seen from his game logs for the 60 games he played: In the first 20, he averaged 23 minutes and a 5.9 Game Score. Second 20: 14 mpg and 1.9 GS. Soon after this, he was injured and had a hard time getting back in the lineup, appearing in only 2 of 16 games at one stretch, and for a total of 12 minutes. Last 20: 16 mpg and a 5.7 GS. Despite the strong finish, he still has plenty of questions to answer heading into his 2nd season.
One of his issues last season was excessive fouling, or at least being called for an excessive number of fouls. He was called for 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes. This is not unusual for rookies, and there are examples that suggest that European based players who come from the NBA encounter this problem. Nikola Pekovic, for example, was called for over seven fouls per 36 as a rookie. I'm not too concerned that this will continue to be a problem going forward.
The deeper issues are his inconsistency and tentativeness. While he showed flashes of the talents that made him Euroleague MVP--shooting, ball-handling, passing from the power forward spot--he went through long stretches when he didn't make any positive impact. It was also clear that he was hesitant to assert himself, as his 12.8% usage suggests. I don't like ascribing things to intangibles that we can only guess at, but it appears to me that he lacked confidence for much of the season. One might expect this from any rookie, even one with professional experience; the NBA is an entirely different level.
Still, his season seems much better in retrospect than it felt watching it at the time. The down stretch in the middle of the year seemed to dominate, but when you consider his performance in total, there are real positives. First of all, most of the composite stats suggest a player who was a more than adequate back up, and way above replacement level. His BPM was positive, his RPM was 32nd among power forwards. Though the sample sizes were small, he wound up shooting very well from both two (56%) and three point range (38%). He rebounded fairly well on the defensive end. While he didn't appear particularly quick defensively, there's nothing in the record that suggests he was a poor defender.
In other words, he was somewhat useful, which for a rookie is a decent place to start. Of course he doesn't have the upside of a 20 year old rookie who did the same things, but we never expected him to be a star. His next steps are to figure out how to maintain his confidence throughout, while committing to being more consistently assertive while on the court. That doesn't always mean seeking out his own shot, though his usage rate does need to increase, but also being willing to make plays for others, something he clearly has the ability to do. I'd like to see him involved in more pick and rolls, both as the screener and the ball-handler, which should give him some space to exploit his play-making abilities.
This is a big season for the man from Serbia. If he can establish himself consistently, he could be looking at several more successful seasons in the NBA. If he doesn't, it could spell the end of his NBA odyssey, though he does have another guaranteed contract year in 2017-18.
What do you expect from Nemanja Bjelica this season?