For the better part of his first two NBA seasons, Nemanja Bjelica’s play was up and down, his minutes as consistent as his play. But he can point to a specific game, a particular night, when that started to change:
Feb. 27, 2017.
The Timberwolves were playing at Sacramento. On that night, Bjelica played 35½ minutes, scored 10 points with 12 rebounds and was a team-best plus-27 in a 102-88 victory.
After months of trying to fit in, it was like something had clicked. “I remember playing all those minutes in Sacramento,” Bjelica said. “We won that game and we just started winning. And my confidence rose with it.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. But in a seven-game stretch that started in Sacramento, Bjelica came off the bench to average 9.9 points with 8.3 rebounds. He had three double-doubles, and the Wolves went 5-2.
And then, minutes into a game at Boston, he hurt his left foot. Five days later he had surgery to repair the navicular bone in his left foot, and he missed the final 15 games of the season.
After rehab — and a three-week vacation in his native Serbia — Bjelica has been working out in Minneapolis waiting to get back on the court and regain a feeling that, last year, was so fleeting.
“I had a great summer,” he said. “I worked hard, and I’m ready for the season. To be honest with you, I didn’t expect that I would play in the preseason games. And I played in all three. I feel great. I’m ready, I’m 100 percent.”
It has been a good summer — and fall. His wife, Mirjana, gave birth to son, Stefan, on Sept. 27. Since the Wolves returned from China, in order to get some sleep to be ready to play, Bjelica is doing what he did when daughter, Nika, was born six years ago: He is sleeping in his own room, with Mirjana and her mother doing much of the work with the baby.
About to enter his third NBA season, Bjelica has to be ready. The fact last season ended so abruptly for him only makes him more determined.
“I just played,” he said of the stretch leading up to his injury. “I let the game come to me. I was patient. I tried to play simply. I was upset when I got hurt. But what could I do? I did everything I could to get to that point. I was controlling what I felt I could control.
“I got hurt and that’s it. But now Coach knows what I can do. He knows how he can use me. And I’m ready to be a part of a winning team.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said he sees Bjelica developing chemistry with a second unit that includes Gorgui Dieng, Jamal Crawford, Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones.
“He was out for a long time,” Thibodeau said. “But the entire training camp, he hasn’t missed anything. I think the more he plays the better it is for him. I think he’s building chemistry with the second unit, and that’s important. But there is a long way to go.”
But Thibodeau noted that Bjelica playing at his best and the Wolves winning wasn’t a coincidence. Bjelica’s ability to both move the ball and stretch a defense from the perimeter are valuable assets. “Defensively, he improved [last season],” Thibodeau said. “He has to continue to work at that. But he fits with our best players. He complements them well.”
Bjelica? He just wants to be a part of a winner.
“I’m ready for the first game,” he said. “I know what I’m doing. The best feeling is when we win. And I think we’ll win a lot this year.’’