Who Is Nemanja Bjelica and Why Should You Care?
If you don't know who Nemanja Bjelica is, you're probably not alone.
The 27-year-old Serbian power forward has yet to play a single minute in the NBA after being the 35th player selected in the 2010 Draft. The Washington Wizards took him with the fifth pick of the second round that year and then traded his rights to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a package that netted them Trevor Booker.
Bjelica has played five seasons in the Euroleague and been a regular member of the Serbian national team since EuroBasket 2009, but his name has seldom come up in NBA conversations since the 2010 Draft. That is, of course, until he won the Euroleague MVP award last season and parlayed that into a three-year, $12 million deal with the Timberwolves this summer.
His MVP campaign featured averages of 12.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 27.8 minutes per game over 29 contests, with a shooting split of 50.0% from the field, 35.1% from long range, and 68.4% from the free throw line. Those numbers, prorated to their per-36-minute equivalents, look extra sexy at 15.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 0.9 blocks.
European leagues make use of a stat called Performance Index Rating (PIR) to estimate a player's overall value and impact. The formula is as follows:
(Points + Rebounds + Assists + Steals + Blocks + Fouls Drawn) - (Missed Field Goals + Missed Free Throws + Turnovers + Shots Rejected + Fouls Committed)
Bjelica's PIR total of 532 last season was the second best in the Euroleague, while his 18.34 average per game ranked fourth. For the sake of comparison with another player that recently made the jump from overseas to the NBA, Nikola Mirotic registered an average PIR of 15.94 in 2013-14 -- his last Euroleague season before joining the Chicago Bulls.
In fact, while we're making comparisons:
Text from NBA scout at Serbia-Spain: "(Bjelica) flat-out stud. Better than Mirotic. Knows how to play. Has a feel one can't teach." #twolves
— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) September 5, 2015
Granted, Mirotic is three years younger than Bjelica and has a lot of untapped potential, but that kind of comparison should give Wolves fans plenty to get excited about this season.
As should his recent performance at EuroBasket. He put up a monster 24-point, 10-rebound, 4-assist performance against Spain in the opener, then followed that up by dropping a game-winner on a Dirk Nowitzki-led Germany squad.
In the six EuroBasket games he's played so far, Bjelica's averaging 14.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 25.8 minutes per contest, while shooting 61.8% from the field, 37.5% from distance, and 78.9% from the charity stripe. Serbia is a sterling 6-0 in those games.
At 6'10" and 234 pounds, Bjelica has a very unique set of skills for a guy his size. Apart from being somewhat of a stretch four, he is also a talented ball-handler and an above-average passer -- a "point forward," so to speak. Flip Saunders and Wolves general manager Milt Newton have both praised Bjelica's feel for the game and have mentioned that he will be ready to contribute for the Timberwolves right away in 2015-16.
The only problem? The Wolves have a lot of guys jamming up their frontcourt rotation.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, and Nikola Pekovic are all competent, NBA-ready bigs, veteran Kevin Garnett is penciled in as the team's starting power forward, and former first overall pick Anthony Bennett has been having an impressive summer of his own playing for Team Canada at the FIBA Americas tournament.
Bjelica could conceivably spend some time at the small forward position, but the lion's share of those minutes are likely to go to budding superstar Andrew Wiggins, with Shabazz Muhammad and Tayshaun Prince mopping up whatever's left.
So, where does Bjelica fit in?
Well, the Wolves have a very young roster. Born in 1988, Bjelica is the only big on the team outside of Garnett and Pekovic who was born before the 1990's. Seeing as how Pek will be heading into the season at less than 100 percent with a chronic ankle issue and Garnett is likely to grab a lot of DNP-Olds between games capped at roughly 20 minutes of playing time, Bjelica might be the closest thing the Wolves have to a finished product that they can count on for big minutes in their frontcourt.
Developing Towns and Dieng will certainly be a priority, but one has to assume that the timing of this contract, along with all the "contribute right away" talk out of Saunders and Newton, means that Bjelica will have a shot at a reasonable share of minutes from the jump.
Not to beat a dead horse, but the situation bears a striking resemblance to Nikola Mirotic's transition to the Bulls last year, when he joined a Chicago frontcourt that already included Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, and Taj Gibson. Despite the stiff competition, Mirotic was able to carve out a fairly consistent role, playing in all 82 games for the Bulls and putting up averages of 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 20.2 minutes per contest, with a True Shooting Percentage of 55.6%. He even managed to come second in Rookie of the Year voting, behind Bjelica's now-teammate Andrew Wiggins.
The point is: there may very well end up being a role for Bjelica on this Wolves team. Between Pekovic and Garnett likely missing their fair share of games and a 19-year-old kid like Towns needing to prove himself before his minutes are guaranteed, don't be surprised if Nemanja is the man splitting a lot of those frontcourt minutes with the up-and-coming Dieng. Even more so if Pekovic or Bennett wind up getting traded, as their names have been popping up in trade rumors off and on for a while now.
And, if you're a fantasy hoops player, it would be wise to place Bjelica on your radar. As of now, he could even serve as an interesting late-round flier in standard leagues, with all the buzz growing around him.
At the very least, the name Nemanja Bjelica is about to become much more recognizable to NBA fans. Maybe we'll even learn how to pronounce it correctly.