Nemanja Bjelica: The Wolves’ Secret X-Factor?
To say that Nemanja Bjelica had an up and down rookie year would be a bit of an understatement. He came out of the gates hot last season averaging 8.9 ppg and 7.9 rpg while shooting 44.1% from beyond the arc in 32.5 mpg over his first eight games, including a four-game stretch in the middle of December in which he scored in double figures and even tallied his fist double-double.
However, Bjelica saw his production, minutes, and confidence drop off precipitously as the days turned to weeks and weeks to months as the season drug on. After his hot streak in December, Bjelica would not score in double figures in back-to-back games again until the waning days of March (he put up 14 and 15 respectively in losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz).
Throughout the season, though particularly during his times of struggle, Bjelica drew the ire of many as, quite often, he would hesitate or pump fake at the three-point line and attempt to drive rather than just let it fly. Prior to his arrival on American soil, Bjelica had developed quite the basketball reputation overseas. He was heralded as being both a marksman from beyond the arc as well as a deft ball handler due in particular to his play during his two seasons with Fenerbahce Istanbul of the EuroLeague, a league considered second only to the NBA in terms of skill. Bjelica won the league’s MVP award during the 2014-15 season (his second and final season with Fenerbahce) due to his ability to stretch the floor and to often act as his team’s de facto point guard, despite being 6-feet, 10-inches tall.
Although he was a pretty good three-point shooter in Europe (he shot 35.8% from deep across his five professional seasons), the real strength of his game came by way of his ability to handle the ball and be a playmaker as well as a facilitator. However, for much of his first season in the NBA, Bjelica was pigeon holed within then head coach Sam Mitchell’s offense as a three-point specialist, while his playmaking ability went mostly underutilized. Combine that with the steep learning curve most NBA rookies mercilessly fall victim to and it’s no wonder why Bjelica did not live up to his preseason hype.
However, once Bjelica returned from a mysterious foot injury that kept him out of 14 games after the All-Star break, things seemed to change. Bjelica appeared to be more comfortable on the court and, with that, his confidence returned. Bjelica’s ability to drive and finish or kick to an open teammate was utilized more frequently within the offense, which provided Professor Big Shots more space on the perimeter. An interesting tidbit to note: In the 14 games he appeared in after the All-Star break (*insert obligatory small sample size alert here*), Bjelica’s volume of three-point shots decreased (from 56.5% of all of his shots before the All-Star break to 44.6% after, according to NBA.com) and, thus, his volume of two-point shots increased (from 43.5% to 55.4%), and with that shift his numbers increased dramatically across the board.
With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how new head coach Tom Thibodeau utilizes Bjelica during the upcoming season. At the risk of drawing lazy comparisons, we already have a precedent of how Thibs will utilize Bjelica and his unique skillset in Chicago Bulls’ forward Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls took advantage of Mirotic’s ability to shoot and make plays, especially out of the triangle, and one would have to assume that Thibodeau would utilize Bjelica in much the same fashion (after all, Thibodeau reportedly smiled at the mere mention of Bjelica just last week; feel free to read into that at your leisure).
Although Mirotic is undoubtedly more athletic and quicker than Bjelica, they are roughly equal shooters (Bjelica posted a 38.4% 3P% last season while Mirotic shot 39.0%), and both draw from the same skill pool. Although the Wolves’ bench figures to be improved with the additions of rookie guard Kris Dunn, wing Brandon Rush, and center Cole Aldrich, having an improved Bjelica coming off the bench could prove to be quite the boon for the Wolves this season. In today’s NBA, having a forward who can stretch the floor and truly handle the ball are extremely valuable and, yet, still relatively rare. Better, more consistent play by Bjelica this season could be one of the X-factors that determines whether or not the Wolves find themselves in the race for a playoff spot or continue their decade-plus in the postseasonless desert at the end of the year.