Nemanja Bjelica Finds His Stride with Kings
On a warm autumn night, 10 miles outside the white sand-covered shores of South Beach, Nemanja Bjelica is freezing cold.
Shifting his 6-foot-10 frame inside a narrow, tightly-packed visitor’s locker at American Airlines Arena, he extends his legs and submerges his feet inside two plastic tubs filled with ice water up to the ankles. While his nearby teammates bite into chicken sandwiches and review film on iPads, Bjelica draws solace from his own pregame routine, the sloshing water nearly spilling over the brim each time he repositions his body.
The Kings forward – soft-spoken and stubbornly deflective of any individual praise – quietly chuckles at the notion that he might actually have ice water coursing through his veins.
The former EuroLeague MVP is used to leaving his opponents shivering – after all, he earned nickname “Professor Big Shots” overseas for his late-game heroics – but he has a better explanation for why he’s been an instant difference-maker in his short time with the Kings.
“Before, it was kind of hard to find myself on the court,” he said. “I had a lot of (overseas) experience, but when you come to the League, you need to adjust. It’s totally different basketball, and the way the NBA is going, it’s not like in Europe. Now, I have a better opportunity here to show that I belong to this league. It’s my fourth year, and everything is easier.”
His growing self-confidence and comfort level with his new teammates are evident by nearly any metric.
Through 10 games in Sacramento, No. 88 ranks among the team leaders in most major categories, drilling 56.1 percent from the field and 53.8 percent from deep on nearly four attempts per game. He’s not just averaging career-highs across the board, but nearly doubling his previous bests in points (14.4), rebounds (5.8) and assists (2.8).
The big man ranks third on the team in offensive net rating among rotation players (plus-12.1) and fifth in defensive net rating (-10.4); add up the numbers, and with Bjelica on the court, the Kings have been 22.5 points better per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
Among all five-man units in the League that have played at least 50 minutes, Sacramento’s two most frequently-used lineups, both featuring the floor-spacing forward, rank as the sixth and 10th most productive in net rating (19.7 and 8.1, respectively).
“He brings a different dimension to this team that we were missing last year,” said guard Buddy Hield. “He’s another playmaker, a guy who can put the ball on the floor and a guy to shoot the ball extremely well. He’s a guy who can stretch (the floor), (which) helps (De’Aaron) Fox create and get to the foul line.”
Bjelica credits Fox for pushing the tempo and kicking the ball out to get him open looks from deep, both in transition and half-court sets. The Serbia native has knocked down at least three triples in four of the last five contests, during which Sacramento has outscored opponents by 28 points in his 144 minutes on the floor.
It’s no wonder why Kings Head Coach Dave Joerger has encouraged his starting forward to keep firing from long range, especially considering few players at Bjelica’s size are able to connect from deep as accurately.
“I need him to shoot the ball over the top of the defense to give us more space, which is a big priority for us, with trying to give De’Aaron Fox as much space as possible,” Joerger said.
“I used to always laugh at Mike Miller, who’s a good friend of mine. I’d rebound and throw it out to him, and pretend I was going to contest his shot. He used to always laugh. ‘What are you going to do, Joegs? Grow?’ When you have that size, you can get the ball up and you’re just looking over the top of people, it makes the game a lot easier for everybody.”
What makes Bjelica even more versatile, and far from a strict three-point specialist, is his ability to facilitate the offense with the basketball IQ and passing acumen of a point guard.
“I like making my teammates better,” he said. “Now, I’m like kind of a stretch-four here in the NBA, (but) I like to play with the ball and put the ball on the floor.”
Early in his career, the future All-EuroLeague selection was tasked with running the team as the primary ball-handler for Red Star in Belgrade, under the tutelage of renowned coach Svetislav Pesic. The multifaceted big man proved ready for the challenge, and after averaging 18.9 points and 3.3 assists per game in 2009-10, first caught the attention of NBA scouts.
Despite being drafted 35th overall by the Wizards in 2010, and subsequently traded to Minnesota, Bjelica decided to stay overseas to further develop his game, first spending three years in Spain with Saski Baskonia, and then tacking on another pair of seasons in Turkey with Fenerbahce Ulker.
“I wanted to play in EuroLeague with (Zeljko) Obradovic – he’s (known as) the best coach in Europe,” he said. “With him, I became a better person and a much better player. I learned so many good things from him, on and off the court.”
In 2014-15, his final season abroad, Bjelica earned EuroLeague MVP honors after averaging 12.6 points on 50 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game.
Although his extensive overseas experience aided him in transitioning to the NBA the following year, the adjustment proved to be more difficult than then-27-year-old imagined.
Faced with a more physical game, faster pace and different set of rules, Bjelica averaged 5.1 points and 3.5 rebounds in 17.9 minutes per game with the Timberwolves, unaccustomedly coming off the bench and at times, questioning his own decision-making.
“It was really tough for me,” he said. “I was the MVP of EuroLeague and (then had a) totally different role here, so I was having a hard time in my first year. It was a great learning process … Your rookie year, especially for guys who are coming from Europe, is hard because in the NBA, there are so many great players. It’s about opportunity and staying healthy.”
Whether it was due to injuries – a broken foot cost him the final 15 games of his second season – or circumstance – a coaching change in 2016-17 brought along a new offensive scheme – Bjelica would seldom have that opportunity in Minnesota.
But when he moved into the starting lineup in place of injured All-Star Jimmy Butler in 2017-18, he was finally able to utilize more of his diverse skill set. Bjelica averaged 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in 21 starts, and in 26 total games in which he joined the team’s regular starters in the frontcourt, the Timberwolves outscored opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com – slightly ahead of Minnesota’s most-frequently utilized five-man unit (7.3).
On March 8, he poured in a career-high 30 points on 11-of-16 from the field and 6-of-9 from behind the arc, to go along with 12 rebounds and two assists, playing with the freedom and confidence he rarely exhibited since entering the League.
“I needed to change everything (in order to) compete at the highest level here in the NBA,” he said. “I wanted to stay in the NBA, so I accepted a new role. I didn’t want to give up, and I didn’t.”
In mid-July, after three seasons with the Timberwolves – during which he increased his scoring and rebounding averages each year – Bjelica flew back to his native country to weigh his options for the future, taking into account both his basketball career and his family’s best interests.
A return to Europe was on the table, and a pending offer from another NBA team piqued his interest. But an unexpected phone call from Kings General Manager Vlade Divac made the final decision easy.
“Sacramento came out with an offer, and I couldn’t say no to them,” Bjelica said. “Vlade told me that Sacramento is a great fit for me … (and that) I can help them. It was a much easier choice because I’m here with ‘Bogi’ (Bogdan Bogdanovic), Vlade and Peja (Stojakovic). I think I made the right choice.”
Few would argue otherwise.
Not when Bjelica’s ability to space the floor, crash the glass and handle the ball have forced opposing defenses to pick their poison while trying to slow down the fast-paced Kings offense. And not when Sacramento is off to its best start in five years.
After a challenging road from Europe to the NBA, the Sacramento signee has finally found his home, and whether he’s drilling a three with the shot-clock winding down or whipping a cross-court pass to set up an open teammate, he’s willing to adapt to any role and do everything he can to keep the Kings in postseason contention.
“I like to win, so as long as I’m on the court and I’m helping guys to win the game, that’s the most important thing,” Bjelica said, reaching for a dry towel to wrap around his icy feet.
“Winning is fun. We are young and we need to understand that. We are on our way.”