It’s something of a pivotal season for Wolves forward Nemanja Bjelica. After two up and down years with the Wolves, he heads into the third and final year of his contract with, perhaps, his NBA career at stake. He is not a young player and will be 30 when he reaches free agency next summer, so if he’s going to earn another NBA contract, it likely will require showing his talents more consistently this season.
Bjelica was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, officially by the Washington Wizards but on behalf of the Wolves in a trade. He was a classic draft-and-stash, a promising young player who still had work to do in Europe before he was ready for the NBA. He ultimately developed into a terrific player in Europe, culminating with the Euroleague MVP in 2015, after which he signed a three year contract to join the Wolves.
His two seasons in Minnesota have been up and down. He has flashed his all-around game at times—shooting, ball-handling, passing—in a 6’10” package that gives him a versatility and skill-set rare among players his size. But it hasn’t been frequent enough, and his inconsistencies, perhaps in part a result of his below average athletic gifts, has been the most noticeable aspect of his game.
For Bjelica, it largely comes down to shooting. He does everything else well enough to be an asset, but when he doesn’t shoot, or doesn’t shoot well enough, he’s a liability.
In his rookie season, he was hesitant to shoot, something that frustrated fans and the coaching staff as he posted a 12.8 percent usage rate. Still, he was fairly efficient, with a 57 percent eFG%, and 38 percent from three. His season was interrupted by a mid-season injury that left him on the fringe of the rotation for a while, but he earned his place back and finished the season on a high note. For a player, even a veteran one, adjusting to the NBA it was a fine first season, and there were hopes for more heading into last year.
His second season was a disappointment for many fans. He was still very hesitant to shoot at times, though his usage did increase to a more reasonable 16.4 percent. The problem was he wasn’t making them. His eFG percentage fell to 50.3 percent, and he shot just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc. Again, however, his second half, until his injury, was better than his first, as his minutes and percentages increased as the season went on.
It’s tough to talk about nebulous concepts like “confidence” from my couch, but it does seem like an issue for Bjelica. When he feels good, he’s letting fly with open shots, and it pervades his whole game, making him a weapon all over the floor. Too often, however, he seems to lack self-belief, and is hesitant to make plays for fear of mistakes. That paralyzes him and results in the Bjelica we yell at our screens about.
All that said, I was surprised to find that he was a positive on/off player last season. The team was significantly worse offensively with him on the floor, but much better defensively, and actually outscored opponents when he was out there. Which speaks to one of his sneaky skills: He’s a pretty good defensive player. As John pointed out in yesterday’s podcast, he appears to understand Thibodeau’s system better than most of the roster, which helps him.
That might be why he seems to have a fan in the head coach, the best fan to have if you are a player. Thibs stuck with him last season even though the early season was a bit of a disaster for him. That was key in getting him going, and Thibs seems committed to carving out time for him. It reamains to be seen, but it appears that Bjelica, Taj Gibson, and Gorgui Dieng will likely share around 60 minutes of playing time between the power forward spot and backup center. It’s not inconceivable that Bjelly sees a few minutes at the three spot occasionally as well, though I’m not holding my breath for that.
He heads into his third season coming off a broken bone in his foot. That kept him out of representing Serbia at Eurobasket, which might be a good thing. I was pleasantly surprised to see him on the floor in the first pre-season game against the Lakers, as I thought they would be cautious with him coming back from the injury. It appears he’s fully ready to go.
The team is better this season, and the Wolves made a major investment in Taj Gibson to add to their front court, which means the standards and competition for minutes will be tougher. Thibs has shown a willingness to play him, and so it will be up to Bjelica to earn and deserve those minutes. He can do so by continuing to defend and showing more consistently what he does that other bigs on the roster don’t: make plays from the perimeter for himself and others.
And shoot the ball.