The Timberwolves need the best version of Nemanja Bjelica

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 24: Tom Thibodeau talks to Nemanja Bjelica #8 and Andrew Wiggins #22. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 24: Tom Thibodeau talks to Nemanja Bjelica #8 and Andrew Wiggins #22. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images) /

With Jimmy Butler going down with a meniscus injury, the Minnesota Timberwolves need Nemanja Bjelica to step up in a big way during Butler’s absence.

When Jimmy Butler went down clutching his knee in Houston last Friday night, the collective hearts of Minnesota Timberwolves fans sunk lower than they have sunk in a long time.

They breath get a small sigh of relief, however, when the news broke that it was a meniscus injury and not the dreaded ACL tear. Here is the press release from the team.

Now that the word is about the extent of Butler’s injury, the focus turns to this Minnesota team trying to hold onto their fourth seed in a brutally close Western Conference playoff race.

While that starts at the top with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Nemanja Bjelica — the man replacing Jimmy G. Buckets in the starting lineup currently — has a huge part to play in helping the Timberwolves stay afloat.

The 29-year-old who can man both the forward spots has averaged 5.8 points and 3.2 rebounds, hitting 48.1 percent of his shots and 42.3 percent of his 3-point attempts thus far this season.

He is often used as the backup at the four spot, used as a spot-up shooter in pick-and-pop scenarios on rare occasions while mainly being relegated to sitting in the corner or on the wing and waiting for his catch-and-shoot opportunities. Hence, why the big Serbian is shooting a hefty 51.7 percent of his shot attempts from downtown.

Although he does do a fantastic job floating around to make himself an available passing option on the 3-point line, like below how he works around to his sweet spot (46.7 percent on straightaway 3-point tries) after Gorgui Dieng collapses the defense.

Bjelica has been important for an otherwise stagnant bench, but his new role as a starting small forward is just as crucial if the Wolves want to see the league’s longest playoff drought finally come to a close.

When used as a starter in Butler’s absence in five games scattered throughout the season, Bjelly has raised his points per game mark to 10.8 and upped his rebounds to a sturdy seven per outing, although the former Euroleague Most Valuable Player is shooting a below-par 40 percent from the field and 36 percent from long range in those games.

While he is still used primarily as a shooter, his Thibodeau-imposed leash as a rim-attacker and kick-out passer becomes a little looser in when he is inserted into the starting lineup, allowing him to come off screens and drive the scene for a bucket or an assist to another willing shooter.

Here, he attacks the paint off a Taj Gibson screen and hits the awkward floater.

And in the example below he shows off his underrated ball handling ability with a rare ‘Bjelly Spin’ before finding a spotted up Tyus Jones who, despite hesitating unnecessary, cans the triple eventually.

Along with the 3-point marksmanship he has flashed during the 2017-18 campaign on the pick-and-roll and spot up chances, the aforementioned plays will need to become a sustained, efficient wrinkle in the Timberwolves offense.

In previous Butler-less games, offense hasn’t really been a problem. The Timberwolves lineup of Bjelica, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson (i.e. the regular starters without Butler) has posted a sizzling 117.8 offensive rating.

Without their superstar, the Timberwolves actually play at a faster pace (as DWW co-expert Brian Sampson noted brilliantly), which is tailor-made for Bjelica. The Serbian forward can used the increased ball movement to find himself open perimeter shots and available driving lanes.

What has been a problem however has been the defense … surprise surprise.

With Nemanja Bjelica starting in place of Jimmy Butler, the Wolves have put up a disastrous 111.9 Defensive Rating. That would equate to the league’s worst defensive output had it been for the entire season.

The blame certainly doesn’t fall solely on Bjelly, with the cracks in Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague’s two-way game opening wider without their defensive leader acting as another coach on the court.

Some of the blame does fall on Bjelica however, he has posted a career-worst 109.4 defensive rating this season and according to ESPN, the forward has posted a 0.51 defensive real plus-minus which puts him 53rd among power forwards and 28th in the small forward ranks.

While he seems nimble for a big man, his feet are still a bit too slow to stay in front of athletic, quick-off-the-bounce wings, this leads to Bjelica either being blown past or reaching in and fouling.

Watch here how the little known Los Angeles Clippers wing Tyrone Wallace burns the Serbian with his athletic first step, forcing Bjelly to reach firstly, before fouling Wallace on the shot after being far too late with his contest.

These types of mishaps will be under a much larger microscope now without the Timberwolves three-time All-Defensive Team member, so it will be vital that Bjelica can rise to the occasion on the less-glamorous end of the floor.

Next: On Andrew Wiggins' disappointing offensive regression

If the big man can up the efficiency on his budding offensive game and focus on playing solid, fundamental defense, he can certainly help this team make a strong push toward a long-awaited playoff berth.