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Flashback Friday: The Nemanja Bjelica Story

Do you remember how the Wolves acquired the rights to Belly? Because I sure didn’t.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If the race for the MVP award started on Monday, February 27th, 2017 and ended today, Nemanja Bjelica might receive a few first-place votes.

OK, I know that’s not true but the play of Belly as of late has Wolves fans (myself included) feeling all sorts of excitement, and rightfully so. Over his last two games, Bjelica is averaging 11.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1.5 blocks, and ZERO turnovers while playing 33.5 minutes per game. Conversely, during that same stretch, starting PF Gorgui Dieng is averaging 4.5 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block while playing only 21.5 minutes.

Again, while I know this is an extremely small sample size, Bjelica has only played 30+ minutes one other time the season — 41 minutes against the Lakers, back on November 13th, when he dropped 24 points on 60% shooting. He also grabbed eight rebounds, and thieved three steals in 41 minutes of action. The Wolves won the game, 125-99.

Back to this week — without being a true prisoner of the moment, one could argue these last two games have been the best stretch of basketball for Bjelica since he signed with the Wolves prior to the 2015 season.

As I watched Bjelica’s floppy hair fly around last night, back-tapping every offensive rebound he could find, I found myself once again crediting the late, great Flip Saunders for yet another successful transaction under his tenure as Wolves PoBO. After all, seven of the ten Wolves players who helped knock off the Jazz last night 107-80 were either drafted, signed, or extended during Flip’s time as lead decision maker for the franchise.

I was so excited about Belly’s performance the last two games — of course, we all want him to show more consistency — I decided I needed to find out how much longer the professor from Serbia was under contract (spoiler: one more year at approximately $4 million and then a qualifying offer in 2018-2019 of just under $5 million). $4 million dollars in this NBA climate for a stretch-four who can shoot, rebound, and make plays? How did Flip Saunders find this guy?!

Well, he didn't. This guy did:

Yes, the “Wrath of Kahn” still has it’s connections to the 2016-2017 Wolves roster despite being fired from his position as GM back in 2013.

Let’s flash back to the night of June 24th, 2010, when the Wolves held the 4th, 16th, and 23rd picks in the 2010 NBA Draft. The Wolves used those three first-round picks to select Wesley Johnson (woof), Luke Babbitt (double woof), and Trevor Booker (very small woof, more of a whimper). In Kahn’s defense (wait what am I doing?), all three of those players are still in the league today, and two of them even start (Babbitt for the Heat and Booker for the Nets).

After calling in 3 of the first 23 picks, David Kahn still felt antsy. So what did he do? He picked up the phone and made another move! After sending Babbitt and Ryan Gomes to Portland in exchange for Martell Webster, it finally seemed like the lawyer from Portland, Oregon was ready to call it a night.


With one more trick up his sleeve, and after Commissioner David Stern had announced the last pick of the first round, Kahn picked up the phone yet again, sending Booker and the rights to Hamady Ndiaye (selected #56) to the Washington Wizards for Lazar Hayward (selected #30) and the rights to Nemanja “Belly” Bjelica (selected #35).

How did that trade wind up for each team? Well, Booker played out his entire rookie contract with the Wizards (four seasons) before bouncing around to the Utah Jazz (two seasons) and finally landing this season with the Brooklyn Nets, where he is averaging career highs in points (10.3), rebounds (8.6), and assists (2.2). Hamada N’diane wound up playing only 36 total NBA games over the span of his four years in the league, averaging .6 more points per game than you and me.

On the Wolves side, Hayward would play only 42 games for the Wolves during his rookie season before being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for two 2nd-round picks and a create-a-player named Robert Vaden. As for Bjelica, he continued to play overseas for clubs in Spain and Turkey from 2010-2015, with his career highlight coming in May of 2015 when he was named EuroLeague MVP after averaging 12.1 points and 8.5 rebounds. With his value at an all-time high, the 27-year old “rookie” signed with the Wolves for the Mid-Level Exception in the summer of 2015.

Fast-forward back to present time — at only 28, and making less money per year than Kris Dunn, Cole Aldrich, and/or Jordan Hill, it seems the Wolves poor execution in the back end of NBA drafts may finally be changing. With two more years under contract for less combined money than what Omer Asik will (somehow) make in 2017 alone, and in a league that is placing more and more of an emphasis on playmaking and shooting from front-court players, it appears the Wolves may have ultimately found a stretch-four that can impact games.