According to several reports, reigning Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica of Fenerbahce is heading to the Minnesota Timberwolves next season. The 2010 second-round draft is about to pay off because the 27-year old overseas veteran can play.
Kevin Pelton came up with NBA projections for every draft and stash currently owned by teams across the league by using win percentage, which is the per minute version of his WARP statistic (win above replacement player). Pelton pegs Bjelica for a 51.4 win percentage, which ranks third among all draft and stash players (behind Marko Todorovic and Walter Tavares). The optimistic projection isn’t a surprise considering Bjelica’s vast experience in the best league in the world outside the NBA.
***Chart courtesy of DraftExpress
Bjelica has been playing top European competition since the 2008-09 season when he was 20 years old. He’s developed into a versatile combo forward with size at 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds. Like many European big men, Bjelica has nice outside touch despite his size. He’s nailed at least 40 percent of his three-pointers in either Euroleague or ACB competition four out his last five seasons. His 41.6 three-point percentage in the 2013-14 season was the first time he shot better than 40 percent from the three-point line over the course of a full Euroleague season.
He took a step back from behind the arc last season, making less than a three-pointer per game at a middling 34.7 percent clip, but he excelled in all other areas of his game in his MVP campaign. Bjelica averaged a crisp 17.5 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.9 steals, and a block per 40 minutes, which led to his career-best 22.8 PER.
Bjelica’s a crafty offensive player who’s a more-than-capable playmaker. He uses the threat of his jumper to attack closeouts and finish in the paint with solid, albeit not overwhelming, athleticism. He’s also aggressive on the offensive glass (2.7 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes last season) even though he drifts on the perimeter quite a bit. Bjelica is just a smart player that has few weaknesses offensively and is capable of playing all three frontcourt positions.
On the defensive end, Bjelica isn’t a game changer but he’s active and possesses decent shot-blocking skills. The highlight reel above features several emphatic rejections, including an athletic chase-down block. That skill likely won’t translate much against NBA athletes, but at the very least he doesn’t project to be a poor defender. His tremendous rebounding (at least 8.3 rebounds per 40 minutes in all competitions since 2012-13) should translate well to the NBA.
Bjelica is more finesse than physical, which could be problematic against stiffer competition. With the exception of his solid free-throw rate this past season, Bjelica has hardly ever got to the line in the past. His free throw attempt per field goal attempt was .27 or worse in all competitions since 2011-12 before his .46 mark last season. The absence of getting easy points at the line could lead to some cold droughts as he adjusts to the NBA.
Making the transition from the Euroleague to the NBA isn’t always pretty. The NBA is a completely different style of play with much bigger and athletic lineups. However, the older the player is, the better chance he has to make an immediate impact. Nikola Mirotic finished second in Rookie of the Year voting as he entered the league as a 23-year old. Although Bjelica isn’t as heralded of a prospect, he will still bring with him years of experience in top-level competition where he thrived and continued to improve each year.
Bjelica won’t be the MVP-caliber player he was in Europe, but he still projects to be an average player, which is a good thing. Gorgui Dieng was the only Timberwolves’ player with an above league-average PER last season (min. 70 games played). His experience will be an asset on a very young Wolves’ squad. The draft-and-stash strategy looks like it’s about to have another success story.