Nemanja Bjelica had a rather peculiar season. The unassuming Serbian found himself careening between virtually unplayable and integral for the team’s success all season, with brief stops at nearly every stage in between. Inconsistency has defined Bjelica’s first two seasons in the NBA, something all inexperienced players are prone to, but most have the advantage of time on their side. Nemanja Bjelica, being 29 years old, does not.
After shooting 38.4% from deep on 2.1 attempts per game his rookie season, Bjelica’s 3FG% dropped a massive 6.8% during his sophomore season. The majority of his decline can be attributed to shooting a morbid 7/38 from above the break on the right side of the court.
Though, as can be seen in his rookie shot chart, Bjelica has always been terrible on that side of the court.
(Quick aside: Seemingly every single player on the Wolves’ roster shot terribly from that location. As a team, the Wolves were 109/373, 29.2%, from the right side above the break. I don’t have a solid guess as to why that may be; it could very well just be bad luck.)
Despite his dramatic drop in three-point percentage and inability to play effective defense, Bjelica was second on the team in net rating (+1.3; trailing only Tyus Jones) and was fourth in plus/minus (-11). When he tallied double-digit points, the Wolves were 8-7, when he didn’t, they were 20-30.
Bjelica’s game has always been one of a playmaker/distributor rather than that of a spot-up shooter, though his performance often begs the question of if his game is playmaking or feigning playmaking. If one were to sum up his style of play with a Twitter-like character limit, they’d say he is the prototypical point forward; at least, that’s how it feels. His handle is advanced for someone his size and his passing ability, while not great by any means, is better than most give him credit for. He’s quicker than one might assume, can handle a fast break, and is a strong rebounder.
However, he also has the profile of a sweet-shooting stretch four – long arms, repeatable stroke, range – but he has yet to show much comfort in that role. Much to the chagrin of Wolves’ fans and writers, Bjelica often hesitates or pumps when wide open and 24 feet from the hoop and frequently elects to drive instead.
Bjelica’s unique attributes scream of being NBA caliber, and when he’s on top of his game, so does his play, but there’s just…something…missing that has prevented him from unlocking his potential in his first two seasons. It could be the lack of consistency between systems, having two coaches in as many campaigns. It could be Sam Mitchell and Tom Thibodeau not utilizing Bjelica in a way that best emphasizes his strengths (rather, the coaches end up emphasizing his theoretical strengths). It could be that he just isn’t cut out to be an NBA player.
For a player who profiles as a stretch four and/or point forward, Bjelica hasn’t consistently been used within the system as either, really. Sure, he shoots threes and brings the ball up the court every now and then, but his role has yet to be solidified. He is neither a stretch four, nor a point forward; he just…exists, and he isn’t talented enough for simply existing to have an impact on the team’s win/loss record. Perhaps with a firm role, Bjelica’s fortunes will turn around.
I think someone whose game film Bjelica could benefit mightily from watching is Draymond Green. While Bjelica could only dream of becoming half the player of Draymond, he has a similar base set of skills. Green does an immaculate job of probing the defense and, finding opportunities to set up his teammates, something I wish Bjelica did more of. As of right now, Bjelica will drive-and-kick, but often lacks control; he knows what he wants to do, but his body draws an offensive foul or leaps before the passing lane is open.
Green also isn’t afraid to take what the defense gives him, whether it be a lane to drive or a wide open three. Bjelica needs to work on being decisive with the ball in his hands, yet understanding that the situation is fluid, something Green is exceptional at. If the three is open, he needs to take it, but if a defender shifts over, he needs to learn to drive to the hoop and be ready either kick or shoot. Bjelica is too often of a one-track mind, seemingly making decisions before opportunities present themselves (now, there is a very real argument that this is an innate skill and that if you aren’t born with it, tough cookies; but I think elements of the decision-making process can be worked on and tinkered with so as some improvement can be made).
This upcoming off-season is a big one for Nemanja Bjelica. Although Thibodeau has been a vocal fan of his since his arrival, Bjelica was involved a few whispers around the trade deadline, so one would imagine that he could be had for the right price. Though I do expect him to be around at the beginning of next season, if he doesn’t improve, his time in Minnesota may be coming to a close sooner rather than later.