Meeting the Unknown: Nemanja Bjelica


On May 9th, 1988, a basketball star was born.

Nemanja Bjelica started his life and his journey in the country of Serbia, nearly five thousand miles away from Minnesota, the state he will be spending time in for at least the next three years.

Bjelica has joined the Minnesota Timberwolves — signing what has widely been reported as a three-year, $12 million contract — as the reigning Euro League MVP who is finally able to take the next step in his career and play in the world’s toughest, premier league: the NBA.

In today’s NBA, Europeans may be more stereotyped than any other race or culture, which will lead to fans and aficionados to ask the questions: Is he soft? Can he compete at this level? What makes him different from other Euroleaguers that have come over to the States and failed?

Unfortunately, Bjelica is going to receive that type of criticism until he is able to prove himself. However, with his variety of skills and prowess, it shouldn’t take long before fans know him by something other than the usual cliche.

Who is Bjelica? He’s 6’10”, 225 pounds and has played every position from point guard through power forward. He’s got an above-average wingspan and below-average athleticism, but where he lacks in athleticism he makes up for with knowledge.

One of the better strengths of Bjelica is, in fact, his feel for the game. He is very comfortable on the court due to his tremendous basketball I.Q. and mindset. He’s been in big moments (with both his Euroleague team and with the Serbian national squad), and he has thrived throughout the majority of those instances.

And, as Flip Saunders said in Bjelica’s introductory press conference: “He’s a rookie, but he’s not a rookie.”

Take the 2015 Euro League Basketball Tournament: Nemanja Bjelica led his team among twenty-four other competitors to make the tournament’s final four before losing their two next games to take fourth place. Ultimately, Bjelica won MVP honors, showing that he can compete in the spotlight.

Bjelica brings more than just poise and leadership, of course. He adds spacing and playmaking to a team that could use both coming off the bench.

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The Serbian has been a decently consistent shooter over the course of his past three seasons. Last year, he shot exactly 50% from the field (a career-high) and approximately 35% from long-range — both of which are good, but not necessarily great numbers for a four-man whose purpose is to stretch the floor. He won’t be a Stephen Curry-esque shooter, obviously, but he should be able stretch the floor effectively.

Another thing he does well is distribute. Bjelica is great at penetrating and dishing although it doesn’t always show up in the books. He has the ability to grab a defensive board and bring the ball up in a fastbreak attempt or to initiate the offense. Bjelica doesn’t have a particularly great first step, but his tremendous coordination and timing allows him to get past his defender in an attempt at a straight drive to the rim.

Bjelica is essentially a guard trapped in a forward’s body. He’s great at setting up teammates, and we’ll see how much freedom interim head coach Sam Mitchell gives Bjelica with the ball in a play-making situations.

Like every player, Bjelica has his weaknesses, too. He has added weight and gotten stronger since the 2010 draft, which has halted concerns of his formerly skinny frame. One weakness that might hold him back from more success than he might experience in the NBA is his athleticism, as mentioned earlier, which directly effects his performance on the defensive end of the floor.

Bjelica isn’t quick enough laterally (or vertically, for that matter) to guard smaller players, especially those in the NBA. In the open court, he doesn’t have the speed that will be needed to chase down NBA players. And though his jumping ability is slightly underrated, it still isn’t very threatening to the point where other teams should be afraid of his rim protection.

So, with his given strengths and weaknesses, what scheme would be better for Bjelica?

Bjelica would thrive in a four-out, one-in offense where he’s able to take bigger guys off the dribble. We could also see him bring up the ball a few times — the Serbian Hedo Turkoglu (a nickname reminiscent of Bruno Caboclo‘s “The Brazilian KD) — to initiate the offense.

In terms of the rotation, the best fit for him will be as the reserve power forward. Nemanja Bjelica won’t be ready to start right away, but he will be a very serviceable backup (hopefully moreso than Anthony Bennett or Adreian Payne) next season behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Garnett.

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