Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica is close to returning to full contact and remains optimistic about being ready for the regular season opener following his recovery from foot surgery.
The 6-foot-10 Bjelica missed the final 15 games of the regular season after suffering a left foot fracture in a March loss against the Boston Celtics. He averaged 6.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 18.3 minutes.
“I’m almost ready,” he said Friday at Wolves media day at the team’s practice facility. “I spent almost all summer here with my rehab. We’ll see now for training camp. Maybe I will do something. Basically, I’m doing everything but contact. I strongly believe I will be ready for the season. “
Before his injury, the 29-year-old Serbian was having an impact on a team fighting for a Western Conference playoff spot. Bjelica was averaging 9.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 28.9 minutes in the seven games leading to his final appearance of the 2016-17 season.
Bjelica said he’s uncertain if he will participate in preseason games, but Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau expects him to be cleared for contact in the team’s training camp in San Diego, which begins Saturday.
Rookie center Justin Patton is also progressing after hurting his foot in the summer, but he’s further behind in the recovery process, according to Thibodeau.
“[Bjelica] was participating in the fall practices; he was doing noncontact,” Thibodeau said. “Justin is not quite there yet. He hasn’t really done anything. So it will be awhile for him.”
Bazz almost a Laker
One of the key offseason moves for the Wolves to solidify their bench was veteran wing Shabazz Muhammad deciding to return for a one-year deal.
Muhammad, a fifth-year reserve, said he was “very, very close” to signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. But he was lured back by teammates and coaches for an opportunity to make the playoffs.
“I’m excited to be here,” he said. “We’re going to win. That’s something that coaches [and players] are ready to do. And I’m ready to do. I think the West is really loaded. But I thought with myself on the team that gives our second unit a really strong presence to win. [Newcomer] Jamal [Crawford] is going to help me out scoring with the second unit.”
Going from 230 to 218 pounds, Muhammad also said he’s at his lowest weight since high school.
Busy summer for Dieng
Coming off Senegal’s bronze medal in the 2017 AfroBasket Championship in Tunisia, Gorgui Dieng returned to Minnesota feeling “pretty tired right now.”
Before September, Dieng last played for Senegal two years ago when he helped his country to a fourth-place finish in Tunisia. He averaged 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in six games this year, which included an 18-point, 10-rebound game to win third place against Morocco.
“I’ll play until I can’t,” he said. “I love basketball. I love playing. I’ll rest when I’m old.”
Dieng’s role could possibly change from last season after the addition of former Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson. Dieng started all 82 games alongside Karl-Anthony Towns in the frontcourt last season.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “It’s something I can’t control. … I just want to play. I want to be on the court. If they want me to play the point, then I’ll do it.”
Different from Rubio
New Wolves point guard Jeff Teague seems already tired of being compared to Ricky Rubio.
Rubio was traded to the Utah Jazz this summer, but he was a fan favorite in Minnesota as the flashy floor leader for the past six seasons. Rubio averaged 11.1 points and 9.1 assists in his final season with the Wolves. Teague averaged 15.8 points and 7.8 assists for the Indiana Pacers in 2016-17.
“He’s a really good player, but I think I’m more aggressive,” Teague said Friday. “I can score. I’m an athletic player. I play really fast and get people involved. But I see he was a fan favorite. I hear it every day.”
• The Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. On Thursday, Towns said: “I made a promise to [the late Wolves coach] Flip Saunders to win and end the playoff drought — and I intend to keep that promise.”