There’s a lot that Nemanja Bjelica can and often does do right, mechanically speaking. He can make 3-pointers (although his 38.4% percentage on them last year has dipped pretty far to 23.1% this season), he is capable of seeing the floor well and making the right pass. He is 6-10, and although he will never be mistaken for a lockdown defender, he is not a tire fire on that end of the floor (his defensive rating last year was 110 while his offensive rating was 114). Was rookie season was, overall, not a smashing success, but there aren’t very many European players who make a seamless transition to the NBA. Whereas college players grow up within a system whose eventual goal is the NBA, Euro players have to move laterally when they transition before they can move up. In some ways, this is even more difficult for accomplished Euro players like Bjelica, who was the Euroleague MVP in 2015. The mechanics, once again, arrive more or less intact. It’s the application of them that’s sticky.
The question for Bjelica is: Can he learn to apply them in an instinctual way and, furthermore, is that kind of learning even possible for a 28-year-old player?
The age thing is worth spending some time on. The young core of the Wolves — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn — are all 20 to 22 years old. The elder statesmen of the starting lineup are Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng, who are both 26. Dieng is in the fourth year of his NBA career, Rubio is in his sixth. Compared to these guys, Bjelica is ancient, but also still raw in terms of NBA years, given that this is his sophomore season. Thus, it’s essential for Bjelica to show he can hang at the NBA level as soon as possible.
So far, the early returns on this season have not been promising and although some of the things that held him back last year appear to have improved, others have not.
His greatest undoing last season was decision making. Coming into a system that wasn’t built to leverage his talents (given Sam Mitchell’s antipathy to actively generating 3-pointers, especially for big men), Bjelica had a hard time carving out a role. But even when he was given the chance to step up, he had a habit of not taking the shots that he should and then taking the shots that he shouldn’t. A naturally unselfish player, Bjelica passed up open shots to keep the ball moving. Often, this would lead to his teammates encouraging him to take the shot when he has it. Then on his next touch, he would often hoist up a well-defended 3-pointer from too far beyond the arc. You could almost see the gears turning in his head, and they were usually a step too slow.
But (we all hoped) a full offseason of training might help alleviate some of the physical shortcomings that were getting in his way. Better conditioning would speed up his reads and actions by taking off some of the physical limitations. Plus, familiarity with the NBA itself would breed confidence eventually for a player with Bjelica’s natural talent. His rookie year was a young piano student sight reading an unfamiliar piece — the music was just moving too fast for him to play it at tempo, but you could hear he knew how to put it together.
From what we’ve seen so far this season, though, it seems as if Bjelica has memorized the parts he’s supposed to play better, but doing so hasn’t improved his sight reading.
Let’s look at a stretch from Thursday’s game against the Denver Nuggets that encompasses the entire Bjelica experience.
With 8:27 left in the fourth quarter, Bjelica hits an open 3-pointer in the corner to cut a Nuggets lead that was once 14 down to 10. On the next offensive possession for the Wolves he attacks Jameer Nelson after a switch and gets fouled, making the free throws and cutting the lead to 8. Nelson makes a 3-pointer on the other end, but Bjelica immediately gets it back with his own 3-pointer. After the teams trade buckets, Bjelica makes an aggressive layup to cut it to 6 with 5:45 remaining.
The teams go back and forth, but after a wild jumper by Emmanuel Mudiay, the Wolves are down 99-96 with 2:48 remaining, and Bjelica’s been a big part of cutting that lead down. He hasn’t looked particularly fired up (does he ever?), but he’s been getting looks from the places he likes and letting the game come to him.
But then something happens.
Tyus Jones’ drive into the paint draws in Nelson and Mudiay from the left side of the court. Mudiay is still directly in front of Zach LaVine in the corner so the obvious pass is to Bjelica, waiting in his favorite spot on the court to shoot from, the left wing (he took 38.4% of his 3-pointers from there last season). Danilo Gallinari comes flying at him, but instead of just pulling the trigger or letting him fly past and then shooting, Bjelica kind of pump fakes and then decides to drive the lane. Directly in front of him is Jusuf Nurkic, 7 feet tall and 40 pounds heavier than Bjelica. Bjelica tries to loft a floater over him, but it’s long and rolls off the rim.
It’s a problematic possession and a real throwback to Bjelica’s rookie year, except he didn’t pass it to another open guy, but instead tried to get aggressive in a situation that didn’t call for it. I can’t pretend to know what Bjelica’s thought process was there — whether he was thinking of the last aggressive take he had that got him to the foul line — but the problem might be that he had a thought process at all in that moment.
See, two minutes later, the Wolves once again down 3 points, 102-99, with under a minute remaining.
Again, Wiggins’ drive from the right side of the court draws in all kinds of defenders and he kicks it out to Bjelica in the left corner. Again, he is wide open with Gallinari flying at him but instead of taking the shot he does something else. This time, it’s kicking it to Jones on the left wing, open for a 3-pointer. So far, not too bad, I suppose: he’s given up one open shot for another and you could simply chalk that up to a straightforward lack of confidence. It’s not great, but there are worse things than being able to make a smart pass to another open guy if you don’t feel like you can take the shot.
Jones lets it fly and the shot is long but the Wolves corral the rebound and get a fresh 24 with 33.3 seconds left to play. Bjelica curls out from the paint. Nurkic is trailing him but is bigger and slower and Bjelica gets the pass as he reaches the 3-point line. The problem is, he’s not squared up to shoot and has to take a dribble and turn in order to fire. Towns is wide open in the left corner — and I mean WIDE open — but Bjelica doesn’t see him and takes the shot, which bounces off the front of the rim. It’s not a bad shot per se: he’s open and a good 3-point shooter. But it wasn’t the right shot in that moment, and that’s where I think this last few minutes of the game become something more than a bad night for Bjelica.
Every player takes bad shots. Sometimes players take bad shots and they go in (Steph Curry, for example, more than most). Sometimes players take good shots and they don’t (see any of the many roleplayers who have gotten quality passes from LeBron James in an important game’s closing moments and didn’t make them). But every player has some kind of mechanism, some kind of failsafe that’s actually on a separate circuit from conscious decisionmaking that guides them in high-stress moments.
The question, then, is: can you meaningfully train this mechanism and, more specifically, can you train a 28 year old’s and, even more specifically, can you train Bjelica’s?
It’s particularly vexing in Bjelica’s case because it’s not even that he doesn’t want to step up and take the shot. He was, after all, nicknamed Professor Big Shots on the strength of defeating Dirk Nowitzki and Germany on a buzzer beater while playing for the Serbian national team. It’s more that so far in the NBA he’s shown a propensity for outthinking himself in these moments, a tendency to compound one poor decision (passing up that open 3-pointer at 99-96) with another (passing up that open corner 3-pointer) and then another (taking that more difficult 3-pointer from the left wing).
I’m not trying to make a “some guys have it, some guys don’t” argument here. Really. The kind of internal flow and sense of when to do what maybe can’t be taught, but it can be learned. The question is whether there are enough reps and time for Bjelica to learn it when he’s already 28. He should be good enough — strictly mechanically — to be a useful player in the NBA. But the difference between him being a sub who can score and an integral starter for the Wolves may come down to something he has little ability to change.