An accomplished pro nine years now, Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica at age 27 is starting all over again.
He has played at the highest levels in Europe, leading his Turkish team to the Euroleague’s Final Four for the first time in its history last season while also winning that league’s MVP award.
Now he is an NBA rookie who has played fewer than five minutes in four of the Wolves’ past five games and who has made only three of his last 18 shots.
Productive at season’s start, he has become a bit player in recent weeks, limited in part because of far too frequent foul trouble and in part by interim head coach Sam Mitchell’s decision to play centers Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns together more often.
Since 2007, Bjelica has played professionally in Austria, his native Serbia, Spain and Turkey before he signed a three-year contract last summer with the Wolves, who picked him in the 2010 draft’s second round.
“I play professional for so many years and now I have to start everything from the beginning,” Bjelica said. “I need to forget this. I need to be ready to play every game and to be ready for my role here. I need to be patient and just wait for good opportunity.”
He played regularly in the season’s first month, from 19 to 40 minutes a night.
But he has fallen out of Mitchell’s regular rotation these past two weeks, struggling to adapt to a new league that doesn’t allow the same kind of physical play as European leagues and perhaps a new lifestyle and new country to which he moved his wife and 4-year-old daughter.
“It’s the NBA, I came here to improve myself,” he said. “The first time I play in Spain five, six years ago, it was same. I again need to start doing everything from the beginning.”
Bjelica played his only 4½ minutes in Monday’s fourth quarter at San Antonio out of necessity, after both Towns and Dieng got into foul trouble.
“Well, he’s struggling right now, that’s obvious,” Mitchell said. “He’s probably never struggled like this before. He’s probably always been the better player on his teams or one of the better players on the floor. Now he looks out there and a lot of nights he’s giving up strength and quickness and size, so it’s a learning curve to play in this league. I think people get mistaken because he’s 27 and played in Europe, that it’s all going to be an easy transition. It just doesn’t work like that.”
Nikola Pekovic endured similar issues his rookie season. Foul-prone, Pekovic struggled to stay on the court while he adjusted to the NBA game and referees adjusted to him.
“Nobody expected that I would start to play like that this season,” Bjelica said. “What can I say? I need to be ready every game to play. Obviously, I need to learn how to. A lot of games, I get some cheap fouls and because of that I’m out of the game. After you finish one game, you need to forget because the season is so long. I just need to keep working and everything will be OK.”
Mitchell said struggling players too often focus on the wrong things, which are shooting and scoring. He wants Bjelica to defend, rebound, make the extra pass and run the floor.
“Do the hard things,” Mitchell said. “We can work with you and show you things, but at a certain point you have to go out there and do the tough things.
“It’s part of him learning. Either he’s going to learn to do it or he’s not going to be able to play. We feel confident that he’s going to be able to do it. It just takes time. It’s like your kid riding a bicycle for the first time with training wheels. At a certain point, we got to let him go. It’s big-boy time — time to let you go.”