When you look at Nemanja Bjelica’s stats for his rookie season in the NBA, they’re a little eye-popping. Throughout big chunks of the season, it felt like the Euroleague sensation struggled immensely. He couldn’t stay on the court or even get on the court at times, and then his injury around the All-Star break made it feel like a lot of this first campaign through the NBA was a waste.
It wasn’t an Alexey Shved sort of ordeal but it wasn’t leaving us with the fuzzy feelings of Professor Big Shots that we experienced during the FIBA action last summer. Half of this season just felt like a disappointment when it came to Bjelica. It wasn’t enough to sour on the addition to the roster, but the confidence we were supposed to see with him waffled back and forth. When you look back at the stats though at the end of the season, the efficiency in which he played is a bit surprising.
Bjelica put up 10.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per 36 minutes. He finished the season at 46.8% from the field and 38.4% from deep. His true shooting of 59.4% was the best among rookies who played at least 1,000 minutes. Even though he’s played professional basketball for quite some time, these are the encouraging things about him on the basketball court, even when he didn’t seem to have a ton of confidence out there.
I guess that’s what made aspects of this season frustrating when watching Belly on the court. We know what he can do. We know what he can be on the court for this team. Ideally, you could throw him into a lineup with Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns to have a nearly impossible offensive unit for the defense to battle. Because of some coaching decisions along with unexpected hesitancy from Bjelica for big chunks of the season, that lineup only played about 38 minutes together, according to NBA.com/stats.
Hesitating was Bjelica’s biggest problem this past season. Aggressive Bjelica meant plays were being made. He’d hit jumpers. He’d find cutters. He’d find openings in the defense, and with his size even as a stretch-4, he could create the space he needed to make plays. Maybe the most telling stat for Bjelica (and this is the case with a lot of role players) is that when he touched the ball for under two seconds and attempted a shot, he was knocking down 49.2% of his shots with an effective field goal of 61.0%. Drop that to 2-6 seconds of touching the ball and his percentages drop to 38.3 and 43.6.
Bjelica didn’t always look comfortable on the court. Maybe some of that was the makeup of the team. Maybe some of that was the coaching. Maybe some of that was just being too inside his own head. Once he started making mistakes, he started hesitating. We weren’t getting pump fakes on the perimeter following up with an attack to the weak side of a strong closeout. We were just getting lagging decisions on the court. That negated his ability to attack off the dribble. That negated his ability to knock down quality shots. That negated his playmaking for others.
In theory, he’s such a perfect weapon for the Wolves. He’s a stretch-4 who can attack the paint. Granted, he’s a struggle on offense but under Tom Thibodeau and in a lineup with Towns, Rubio, and Wiggins, we could see those defensive deficiencies lessened considerably. And the goal for Bjelica is making him comfortable in that Sixth Man role like we saw in the final month or so of the season.
Following the All-Star break, Bjelica (once healed from his foot injury) was incredible. His per 36-minute stats were 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists while shooting 56.9/48.3/88.2. Those percentages aren’t sustainable moving forward, but 50/40/80 could very well be in the running. It’s all about avoiding the lulls of the season and keeping the confidence churning. Or maybe the confidence is the wrong thing to focus on. Maybe it’s keeping the comfort consistent, whether it’s his match-ups on the floor or the lineups the Wolves utilize with him.
He should have the green light on offense. He should know he has the green light on offense. And there’s no reason he shouldn’t be the biggest weapon off the bench for the Wolves. More so than Shabazz Muhammad. That’s not a knock on Shabazz either. Bjelica is the type of guy who will make Muhammad’s life easier off the bench (assuming he’s still a part of the plan) by being the player we want to know him to be.
We want Professor Big Shots. We got him at times in his rookie season. We’ll probably see him a lot more often moving forward.