Though he wasn’t as good as his first year with Fenerbahçe, Nemanja Bjelica was still one of the best players in Europe for most of last season – leading the Turkish powerhouse to its first Euroleague Final Four appearance and earning league MVP honors along the way.
The ending wasn’t particularly great, however. Bjelica dealt with a back injury late in the season and was a complete non-factor on Fenerbahçe’s loss to Pinar Karsiyaka (a team with a much shorter budget) in the Turkish league semifinals.
Bjelica is already 27 and looked like he was about done being OK with how often legend Zeljko Obradovic got in his face in that series. But considering how much of an impact player he was in the European game these last two seasons, it’s a bit surprising he agreed to join the Timberwolves on a contract that will earn him just $3.9 million of annual average value.
Despite being six-foot-10, Bjelica used to run point for Red Star Belgrade in his early 20s. As a result, he has better perimeter skills than the average big man.
Bjelica can grab a rebound on the defensive glass, bring the ball up the court and initiate offense. Fenerbahçe wasn’t much of a fast-break team but Bjelica was an asset in semi-transition by attacking while the opponent was still looking to set the defense with the shot clock between 15 and 20 seconds.
Earlier in the season, Fenerbahçe often focused on running Bjelica off down screens. That was not intended to get him open to launch jump-shots on the move but rather to get him attacking the lane off a live dribble. Bjelica is a very good passer on the move for someone his size and this is the sort of set that takes advantage of his skills.
He could also be a tremendous asset on four-on-threes and passing out of the short roll if Ricky Rubio ever develops into the sort of threat that gets doubled beyond the arc. According to RealGM, Bjelica assisted on 11.7% of Fenerbahçe’s scores in his 1,621 minutes on the floor last season.
But towards the end of the year, Fenerbahçe’s offense regressed and turned into a pedestrian spread pick-and-roll attack with the three players off the ball mostly just standing around. Bjelica was one of those spotting up on the weak-side and did get some open looks when the opponent overreacted but lacked confidence in his shot by that point and opted out of them often to put the ball on the floor. He was clearly still fairly stiff, though, and his drives didn’t stress the defense – which made his passing ineffective.
Bjelica is not dynamic dribbling the ball from side-to-side and doesn’t blow by many defenders. He’s a threat off the bounce because he can absorb contact and maintain his motion forward, because he has a good handle and because he uses his body well to protect the ball, keeping his turnover rate average – which is acceptable considering he isn’t able to dribble low due to his height and that should make him susceptible to getting the ball stripped in traffic. Bjelica can attack the rim with some explosiveness on straight line drives but his floor game suffered a lot once he couldn’t move as freely.
Maybe that physical limitation also explains why he was so hesitant to shoot in that Pinar Karsiyaka series. Bjelica is not one of those stretch-fours who are out there gunning three-pointers in volume but has proven himself consistently able to make open shots off the catch these last two years by converting 39.3% of his 374 three-point shots. Bjelica has a fluid release but needs time to load up and late in the season felt uncomfortable elevating with the mere threat of an opponent running at him.
He is also not any sort of a real threat pulling up off the bounce. According to gigabasket.org, Bjelica missed 33 of his 53 mid-range jump-shots in his 811 Euroleague minutes last season, after missing 24 of his 32 such shots against that same level of competition the season before.
Part of what made Bjelica such an impact player in 2013-2014 was Obradovic playing him at center. (Yes, similarly to what Steve Kerr did with Draymond Green.) Though he can’t play above the rim as a constant shot blocking threat, Bjelica was an asset guarding smaller players on switches. He doesn’t change directions all that smoothly and can get exposed if the opponent forces him to go from side-to-side in a pinch but displayed enough foot agility to stay attached on straight line drives and make plays at the rim. Fenerbahçe was an excellent defensive team with him on the floor that season.
Bjelica is a reasonable option at center because he developed well as a rebounder. He proved himself tough enough to box out bigger players and diligent keeping them from establishing inside position these last two years – collecting 30.5% of opponents’ misses last season and 25.4% the season before.
But in 2014-2015, Obradovic used him there a lot less due to a logjam of serviceable bodies at that position. He kept trying to find minutes for Jan Vesely, Luka Zoric, Oguz Savas and Semih Erden, and as a result they didn’t go small as aggressively. According to gigabasket.org, Bjelica logged less than 20 possessions at center in the Euroleague.
As a power forward, Bjelica is attentive to his responsibilities helping protect the interior. And when healthy, he’s proven mobile enough to crash inside and rotate back to the spot-up shooter well enough. That said, Bjelica doesn’t have much closing speed to consistently run shooters off the three-point line and lacks the length to contest shots effectively or make an impact playing the passing lanes.
Bjelica is an open-shot shooter who prefers putting the ball on the floor and forcing the defense to converge to him. That’s how he impacts the game. NBA teams will feel comfortable going small against him, defending him with a wing that is more athletic and longer than those he faced in Europe to limit help and the effectiveness of his passing on the move. The counter to that would be Bjelica posting up these smaller players but this is the biggest gap in his game.
Because of his general skills, Bjelica can be functional in the post. His high vantage point helps him see the court very well from there. But he’s not any sort of a consistent scoring threat with his back to the basket, in part because he hasn’t been asked to play that way very much these last two years. When perimeter players go to the post, they often rely on turnaround jump-shots but, as mentioned above, dribbling into a shot is not something Bjelica does well.
There’s also concern over how well Bjelica’s athleticism will translate. It was an asset in Europe but he’ll be average at best in the NBA. Bjelica does well off the bounce attacking off a live dribble or with the defense moving. If he plays in an offense that fails to generate those opportunities and is forced to take on better athletes in isolation without an advantage, it’s quite probable he won’t bring anything to the table on offense while being a potential liability guarding those sorts of athletes in space on the other end.
The Timberwolves have a lot of people who command minutes in that frontcourt.
Karl-Anthony Towns was drafted first overall and should get the majority of the playing time at center. Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Garnett didn’t play much last season, but they’ll probably still start the year high in the pecking order and there’s a good chance Flip Saunders will try playing each of those guys with Towns a lot, shortening the minutes available at power forward.
Gorgui Dieng is still in the mix and Saunders wasn’t above playing him and Pekovic together last season some, so it will not be shocking when he tries him and Towns together at some point. Adreian Payne is still in the mix as well, and there’s always that very small chance of Anthony Bennett taking an unexpected leap.
Not every one of those guys will be available at every point this season, but it’s a crowded department nonetheless. It makes me fear Saunders will try Bjelica as a wing early, which doesn’t have much upside; he’ll be just a guy at best, and a liability at worst.
When Bjelica eventually does get on the court as a stretch big, there’s also concern about whether his skill-set will be fully utilized.
Saunders loved having Andrew Wiggins and Shabbaz Muhammed post up last season. Hell, he even ran that baseline flex screen for Chase Budinger, and it just happened that Budinger isn’t about that post-up life, otherwise he would have been another wing operating his back-to-the-basket while the big men stood around the lane, crowding the interior.
Based on how Towns proved a functional post scorer at Kentucky, I think it’s fair to assume Saunders will want him getting the ball in the low block a lot as well, which is also where Pekovic does best when healthy.
I think there’s a good chance Bjelica is mostly deployed as a floor spacer around all these post-ups. Sometimes these guys will force double-teams, Bjelica will get some open looks and he’ll probably be more willing to pull the trigger when healthy. If he continues to hit open shots well, Bjelica will be able to attack some closeouts and create on the move. But the NBA is going away from doubling the post in general. Everyone just fears the open three-point shot more these days.
Rubio’s presence forces Saunders to run a respectable number of high pick-and-rolls per game. Maybe Saunders watched the Finals and noticed what sort of impact screeners who can pass on the move can have to open up the floor, and realizes how perfect Bjelica would be doing that. But I don’t think much creativity should be expected after what we saw last season.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.