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Breaking (Down) Bjelica

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Nemanja Bjelica will turn heads in his sophomore season.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

In Season 3 of AMC’s critically acclaimed series Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman — who serves as the lawyer and adviser to meth kingpins Walter White and Jesse Pinkman — has more of the sly advice you come to expect from his wisecracking character.

“If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work,” Goodman says to White. “I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it.” It’s all about conviction when selling a story, Saul contends.

His advice comes in response to Walt as the two sit inside Goodman’s Cadillac outside of the car wash that Walt is thinking about purchasing — per the suggestion of his wife, Skylar, who finds it exceedingly more believable than the laser tag franchise as a drug front to launder his meth money through. Walt worked at the car wash for four years so there’s actual history there that might come in handy if the DEA ever comes sniffing around. That’s a story that will sell, at least in theory.

What does any of this have to do with Nemanja Bjelica?

It all comes back to Saul’s advice in the car. If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work. This particular scene reminded me of an opinion I haven’t sold enough over the past year. That is, there’s good reason to believe the Wolves’ second-year Serbian forward is actually the stretch four—he might call himself a Point Forward instead—that everybody seems to want so badly in Minneapolis. I believe Bjelica is poised to turn heads this season and remain convinced that he has all of the tools to become a prominent rotation player under Tom Thibodeau.

The irony found in discussing the team’s biggest needs with plenty of people, at least for me, is that Bjelica actually fills the exact hole so many have talked about over the past two seasons. The Wolves need a legitimate stretch forward who can space the floor to create driving lanes and open up room for Karl-Anthony Towns to operate on the block, and for Andrew Wiggins to dissect defenders with his patented mid-post isolation that both Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell have leaned heavily on over his first two seasons.

How poetic, right? The player type everyone craves is actually already on the team, locked into one of the more cap friendly deals across the league, if he ultimately pans out like I expect him to. Bjelica is set to earn $3.8 million in 2016–17 and $3.9 in 2017–18. He has a $4.9 million qualifying offer in 2018–19 at age 30.

Professor Big Shots

Bjelica’s nickname “Professor Big Shots” started to spread after his difficult lay-up with less than a second remaining lifted Serbia to a 68–66 victory over Germany at the European basketball championship last September.

Overseas, Bjelica was the man. He was named the 2014–2015 Euroleague MVP with Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul. But over the course of his first NBA season, he was too unselfish for his own good and struggled with injuries. He experienced a quad strain that kept him out of games 13 through 16, as well as a strained right foot—on Feb. 22 it was reported that he’d miss at least three games, but that turned into being sidelined indefinitely and kept him out throughout the middle of the season—which in turn pushed him out of the rotation that he looked comfortably a part of over the first few weeks.

During his rookie season in Minnesota, there weren’t many big shots out of PBS. He struggled like most first-year players, though at age 28 he doesn’t have the luxury of patience  or the built-in excuse of youth. But with a year under his belt, with the guiding influence of Tom Thibodeau, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he takes his game to an entirely different level.

Since last season ended, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen or heard fans lobbying for a stretch four like Ryan Anderson, who signed with Houston for $75 million, or Mirza Teletovic, who got $30 million over three years from Milwaukee. Give me Bjelica for $4 million this season, and the next one, any day of the week instead.

But before going any further, we need to rewind this story a bit.

For about two years, Wolves’ fans have been talking about adding a stretch four to the core of the team, clamoring for some knockoff version of Kevin Love. This was one of the immediate discussion points after trading Love, the premier stretch four, to Cleveland for a package centered around No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins*.

*Thad Young and Anthony Bennett also came to Minnesota in the deal but lasted only one winter in the North. Young was traded to Brooklyn for Kevin Garnett to reunite him and the franchise he carried on his shoulders for over a decade. The woeful former No. 1 pick, Bennett, was bought out for $3.6 million before last season after the Wolves couldn’t find any takers for him on the trade market.

The lobbying for a big forward who can shoot has only grown louder after Karl-Anthony Towns dominated out of the gates at center over the course of his brilliant rookie season. Indeed, it’s easy to see the importance of having a floor-spacing four sandwiched between Wiggins and Towns in the front court. The value of having a four that can create more room for the franchise’s two cornerstones to drive and post up on the block and operate in the pick-and-roll is rather obvious in this pace and space era. Shooters equal spacing and spacing helps keep opposing defenses from collapsing into the paint, which creates driving lanes.

Now, let’s get back to making the story work.

“Minnesota needs a stretch four next to Towns,” is a point that’s been uttered over and over again by analysts and onlookers. That’s not the wrong conclusion either. They do in fact need that. But what if they already have it? What if most people just don’t realize it yet? Here lies the story I want to make work because I believe it: Nemanja Bjelica is the stretch four Wolves fans want, and more importantly he’s the player type the team desperately needs. Along with Gorgui Dieng—one of the best players on the team and an extremely reliable iron man—the power forward position is in much better shape than many realize.

Why should we believe in Belly?

This is a long explanation, so let’s start with the short answer. Thibodeau is too good of a coach not to utilize Bjelica in ways that take advantage of his diverse skill set. Bjelica also has too much talent to wash out of the league before the basketball world gets to indulge in his all-around game. What’s more? He will have the opportunity to shine with the Wolves, and Thibs will probably aim to use him similarly to how he used Nikola Mirotic in Chicago two years ago.

Year two in Minneapolis for Bjelica, in a new system, led by a new coach who has lauded his talent early in his tenure, should help pave the way for major progress.

This is a modern-day forward who can handle the rock and push the tempo in transition, swing a crisp pass from one side of the floor to the other like he’s a guard, easily execute post-entry passes, space the defense with his potentially lethal three-point shot, and still rebound well enough that his presence on the floor doesn’t negatively impact the team on the glass.

The way Bjelica started to find his groove at the end of last season provides even more reason to believe he has the goods Thibodeau is looking for.

At Media Day, there was a completely different player in terms of confidence and comfort sitting on the podium with the number 88 on his chest. Bjelica said he spent his entire offseason in Minneapolis working on strength and conditioning while recovering from a right foot injury—described as an inflamed nerve—that kept him from playing in the Olympics with Serbia.

“After we finished the season, I knew I had to work on my body,” Bjelica admits.

“Now I’m ready,” he says confidently.

He also changed his diet and worked to become more prepared physically for the 82 game grind of the NBA season. “I learned here that you need to be ready 100 percent physically and mentally,” Bjelica adds.

Though Bjelica was upset he couldn’t make the trip to Rio—he’s been a longtime pillar of Serbia’s team—he ultimately felt like it was the right choice to opt out and focus on getting in the best possible shape he could be in.

“I had a lot of time to talk to him [Thibs] and I’m pretty excited. I know what to expect this year. Last year was a lot of learning and now I’m ready for the season,” Bjelica said.

“Last season the first month was OK but after that, I had some foul troubles and I got hurt and was out like 10 days and it’s tough to change in your mind,” he continued. “I came over as MVP of Euroleague and I need to do something else here. That process was really tough, but I know I belong here and I want to finish my career in the NBA, so I needed to change something in my game.”

When asked about Bjelica, Thibodeau said the following in a recent interview:

Q: What do you expect from Nemanja Bjelica in Year 2?

A: I’m excited about him. He’s had a great summer. He’s in really good shape. He has a very unique skill set: He can shoot the three, he can put it on the floor. The one thing that is probably overlooked is his playmaking ability. You can run the pick-and-roll with him. He’s got great vision, he can pass over people.

Thibodeau reiterated these same points on Monday during Media Day at Mayo Clinic Square.

Bjelica’s usage and how it could change under Thibs

My guess is that we will see Bjelica shooting many more 3s, and if you re-watch the vines above that’s only going to help his drive and kick game as defenders attempt to run him off the perimeter. During Media Day, Bjelica made it a point to explain how he’s much more than a three-point specialist and mentioned his eagerness to show more of his pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game, as well as his passing ability in half-court sets.

Belly was undoubtedly gun shy over the course of his rookie season until the last few weeks when he started playing more freely and seemingly turned the corner. The devil’s advocate would argue that once April comes along a lot of games don’t hold much weight given the number of teams that are tanking for better lottery odds, resting their stars, or simply don’t care as much because the season is coming to a close and many of the playoff positions have more or less been decided. That’s a fine argument, but Bjelica did turn the corner and that was important to see in six of those last eight games, whether critics want to trivialize those showings or not.

I really can’t even begin to guess how many times we saw Bjelica pump fake above the break (ATB) 3s only to drive and dish or swing the ball to the closest teammate on the perimeter. Too many times these pump fakes led to worse shots or turnovers. Sam Mitchell would stomp his feet in frustration, swear underneath his breath, or blankly gaze into the crowd with an exhausted look on his face like “how many times have we been over this shit, Belly?” Which leads me to…

I‘m sure Thibs has watched enough film on Belly to realize how important it is to get this very simple point through his skull: LET IT RIP, NEMANJA. I actually think he got better at catching and shooting as the season went on, without hesitation, but there’s no doubt he was unselfish to a fault. His passive nature drove his teammates and coaches crazy at times. Everyone knows his shot is beautiful, but Bjelica is always searching for the perfect shot, whether it’s for him or his teammates. Too many times his passivity hurt the offense.

I don’t exactly know how much this matters, but it’s hard to imagine Bjelica getting only 13 corner three-point attempts under Thibodeau like he did under Mitchell. I doubt it could hurt to get more looks from the corners, and that’s something that didn’t happen last year. He’s an excellent spot-up shooter who is also capable of creating for others off the dribble, and he’s also an excellent passer — standing 6'10" — who can throw post-entry passes better than most players on the team. One can only imagine the value of sticking him, a knock-down shooter that dribble and create a little bit, in either corner to create additional space for the cornerstones to work, to get the most efficient looks from downtown, and still be able to pump fake and take it baseline or toss an easy pass into Towns or Gorgui Dieng on the block in isolation situations. It seems like a criminal misuse of Bjelica to not have him set up in the corners more often.

89.6% of his three-pointers were assisted (43–48) last season and Belly launched threes almost entirely above the break, which is part of my last point. 42 of his makes were of the ATB variety (112 attempts from this range) which means he hit only six corner threes all season. 6! In 60 games! I have to think Thibodeau is going to get more corner triples out of the entire team and Bjelica should be one of his main weapons from this range, along with Zach LaVine and Brandon Rush. Bjelica can be a knockdown spot-up shooter, though that’s not all he’s capable of. One would think that sticking him in the corner, which is a place he almost never found himself last season, and LETTING HIM RIP CORNER TRIPLES, would be one way to maximize his skills. Mitchell’s offense simply wasn’t designed to get corner threes. Like almost never. 4.3% of the Wolves’ threes came from the corners, which was the lowest corner 3FGAr (three-point field goal attempt rate) in the NBA.

No other team was even below 5.7%, according to Nylon Calculus. The Wolves didn’t shoot enough threes altogether — they finished 29th in three-point attempt rate (3PTAr) at .202, meaning about 20% of their shots were from deep in a new age of basketball where the 73-win Golden State Warriors posted an insane .362 3PTAr. Ignoring the most valuable shot (read: corner three) was even more difficult to stomach because the team shot 38% from the corners, good for 15th in the league and tied with San Antonio.

Still, the Wolves were operating as one of the best offenses in the league with Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins on the wings, Rubio running the show at point guard, and Towns and Dieng at the 4/5 in a more pace and space system that Mitchell unleashed right before the All-Star break at home against the Toronto Raptors. Yet, it still feels like there’s another level they can get to offensively as the core improves from deep, and as Bjelica gets more seasoning. While Thibodeau has never been infatuated with the three-ball, it’s definitely going to be better than we’ve seen over the past two seasons. There’s no question.

During Thibodeau’s last season in Chicago, the Bulls posted a .269 3PTAr and 6.0% C3FGAr (corner 3 attempt rate). Those aren’t even outstanding numbers compared to the rest of the league but compared to what the Wolves have been doing since they traded Kevin Love, it’s going to be a welcome upward shift.

So that’s a lot of numbers above. The main takeaway is that the Wolves are going to shoot more corner threes under Thibodeau, who has talked at length about the value of defending the corner three, as well as making them. So, perhaps we’ll see Bjelica cut down on ATB threes as well—though he shot 37.5% from that range—and we should expect a lot more playmaking out of him, instead of seeing him just hang out along the perimeter above the break, which he did consistently last year.

Besides frequently passing up shots in favor of the extra pass — he was an extremely passive rookie under Mitchell , as previously noted— one of Bjelica’s biggest issues was defending without fouling (5.2 fouls per 36). Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng went through this as rookies as well, and it’s a fairly common issue for first-year players as they adjust to the way NBA referees call the game.

“That’s part of learning,” Bjelica responds when asked about all of the shots he turned down. “Here in this league, if you’re open for just a second, you need to take the shot. Now I know what I’m supposed to do, and I will be ready for that.”

What’s next?

Yes, I’m here to tell you that Nemanja Bjelica — the one teammates and friends simply refer to as Belly — is ready to make noise in his second NBA season after spending the last year adjusting to life in Minneapolis with his wife and one year old son. While growing accustomed to the best league in the world, he was also learning to speak English comfortably and adapt to an entirely new culture and role with the Wolves.

Turbulence was almost a certainty given the dramatic change, but this year he’s not coming over right after finishing Eurobasket, and he’s not immediately being thrust into a new environment. He’s been here and he’s ready to show why he deserves to stick around for years to come.

Now it’s time to see if all the positive chatter on Bjelica is real, though his rise to being a more recognizable name around the league is something I believe we’re set to witness in the coming months. The situation is certainly set up to make this story work. “This year, I will play simple basketball,” Bjelica concludes after shedding a subtle smile, perhaps the key tell that the stage is set for a much bigger show in year two.