At first glance, Nemanja Bjelica comes off as a thick, unathletic and slow-footed defender. And also at the second and third glances. At 6’10” and 240 pounds, he may have the size to defend many of the combo wing/forwards that litter the NBA today including players like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Joe Ingles, but he lacks the necessary lateral foot-speed to consistently stay in front of them. However, despite his limited athleticism, he’s a very willing, intelligent and capable defender.
As we’ve seen with Andrew Wiggins, a player’s mindset is half the battle on defense. It’s a different type of warfare where only the mentally strong survive and the weak are easily lost in the fray.
Bjelica takes pride in his defensive capabilities and isn’t afraid to take on a team’s primary perimeter weapon, a role that desperately needs filling in the absence of Jimmy Butler. Against the Utah Jazz, he matched up with Joe Ingles and limited him to 2-5 shooting and six points. Versus the Boston Celtics, he was tasked with defending Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, holding them to a combined 3-6 shooting and 11 points. And on Sunday vs the Golden State Warriors, he primarily defended Kevin Durant and held him to 4-13 shooting and only 12 points, including multiple times where he vocally shoved his teammates away in a show of eagerness to take on the former MVP:
This willingness is a welcome sight for the Timberwolves who need a vocal and spiritual leader to take over for Butler. Given the length of the NBA season and the nightly battles against elite competition, Bjelica’s disposition to taking on the toughest challenges is a trait elite defenders have and is extremely vital to their success on that end of the floor.
His defending of high-usage forwards is a huge change from before when he typically guarded off-ball players whose primary function was to space the floor. According to Synergy Sports, the most common play type he defends has been a spot-up shot (34.9 percent) which he ranks in the “average” range by giving up 1.059 points per possession.
He’s been able to survive this assignment revision by using his high basketball IQ to level the playing field. He knows his strengths and weaknesses on the basketball court and always stays within himself:
On this play, Bjelica begins by switching from Jayson Tatum to Al Horford, who promptly takes him down low to the right block. He does a tremendous job of moving his feet and squaring his shoulders to Horford in an attempt to disallow him from completely bullying his way to the rim. However, Horford has old-man strength and is able to get to a good spot on the floor close to the basket. That’s when Belly gets long by going straight up-and-down and makes the baby hook as difficult as possible (a defender’s primary goal) and ultimately, forces a missed shot before his team corrals the offensive rebound.
By understanding his physical limitations, Belly didn’t try to jump and block the shot, sending Horford to the line in the process. Instead, he remained true to his fundamentals, stayed low to the ground during the backdown and went vertical once Horford attempted the hook shot.
It’s not just down low where he sticks to his fundamentals, as he’s also tasked with guarding perimeter players:
Put in an isolation situation with Marcus Morris of the Boston Celtics, Bjelica once again comprehends his natural limits and doesn’t try to do anything spectacular. As Morris crosses between his legs, Bjelica stays low and keeps one hand high, ready to contest the shot at any moment. This makes it 100 times easier to force a difficult look when Morris suddenly pulls out his own version of the James Harden’ step back and launches a 20-footer. Once again, Bjelica forces a low-percentage shot and a brick off the front of the iron.
Perhaps, the best example of his basketball intelligence came in the final moments in their win against the Warriors:
Even though Quinn Cook isn’t an exceptionally talented player, he is a lot quicker than the Timberwolves’ forward. With the clock ticking down under 40 seconds and the Warriors desperately needing a bucket as they trailed by five, Cook thought he had a mismatch being defended by Bjelica as he brought the ball up the floor. He suddenly attacked the basket, but Bjelica, also knowing Cook had the quickness advantage, took a tremendous angle toward the hoop which allowed him to stay in front of the offensive player without fouling. Then, when Cook tried to go up for a layup, Bjelica, who had already tipped the playing field in his favor, sent the shot back to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
This extraordinary angle-taking isn’t an anomaly with Bjelica, rather, it’s routine. And it’s a great demonstration of everything he brings to the table defensively.
He ranks just eighth on the team in total steals with 35 and seventh in blocks (11), just three more than Jamal Crawford. However, there’s absolutely no disputing who means more defensively between the two.
Given the offensive firepower the Timberwolves’ possess, they don’t need a pack of studs on the other end of the floor (besides, they already have those guys in Butler and Taj Gibson). Rather, they need five guys who understand their role and whose sum is greater than their parts.
Bjelica is a great team defender and understands his assignment on every single play. His role in the system may be a basic one, but it’s perfect for his skills and abilities. Even though he doesn’t enjoy the athletic gifts many of his peers have, he’s a solid defender who tries hard and ultimately, gets the job done. Something the Wolves need more of if they want to not only make the playoffs, but advance past the first round.