With his increased minutes and improved play since teammate Jimmy Butler went down in Houston clutching his right knee last month, Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica is doing more than steady a Timberwolves’ ship — with victories over Golden State and Washington — that started to list after its first three-game losing streak this season.
He’s also making himself some money. Bjelica is in the final year of a three-year, $11.7 million contract that’s a bargain in today’s NBA. He will become a restricted free agent in July, meaning the Wolves can match any offer he might receive.
Scouts from two teams that will have money to spend this summer asked questions about Bjelica’s background, attitude and talent while attending a recent Wolves’ games.
The Wolves last fall signed Andrew Wiggins to a maximum contract. Teammate Karl-Anthony Towns is up next for his very own starting this summer and Butler is due, too, if the team intends to keep him beyond July 2019.
NBA rules allow them to exceed the salary cap if they re-sign one of their own players and are willing to pay the hefty luxury taxes. It’s the kind of financial commitment the Wolves haven’t contemplated since Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell played for them, but that is the price of milk if you’re serious about contending for a title.
At some point, Wolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau, General Manager Scott Layden and, of course, owner Glen Taylor must decide how much they can afford and with whom they can surround three players earning max contracts.
“We’ve been planning,” Thibodeau said. “We’re worried about not only now, but we have to be sure we put the best team on the floor we can. That’s a big part of this. The biggest thing is everyone concentrating on us winning. We don’t want to get lost in anything but chasing excellence.”
The last remaining player from the David Kahn era, Bjelica was acquired in a draft-night deal after being picked in the second round by the Wizards in 2010. He played overseas until joining the Wolves in 2015. At age 29, he is is playing like the youthful point guard who grew into a multitalented Euroleague MVP.
His transition disrupted by injuries and limited playing time, Bjelica started to find his way in the NBA just when he sustained a broken bone in his left foot this time last year. After a summer’s rehabilitation and a sprain in that same foot sidelined that him for 15 games in December, Bjelica has become the Wolves’ iron man since Butler’s injury.
The same guy who played nine minutes in a game just before All-Star break played 40 minutes or more — including 45 in a game at Utah — in three of five March games. His career-high seven assists and perfect 5-for-5 fourth-quarter shooting fueled Tuesday’s victory at Washington, the Wolves’ first road win over an Eastern Conference teams after seven consecutive losses.
For now, Bjelica will play on and decide his future for himself, his wife and two young children when it is time, namely this summer.
“To be honest, I just try to play as good and hard as I can and at the end of the day, everybody will be fine,” Bjelica said. “I’m happy here. My family is happy. Sometimes I hate January because it’s so cold, but I kind of got used to it.”
Thibodeau always says never look behind, never look ahead, just look at what’s in front of you.
“Belly, I don’t think he’s wrapped up in that,” Thibodeau said. “You have to take everything step by step. For every player, just keep chasing excellence. All that other stuff takes care of itself. If you keep concentrating on playing well and you help your team win, everyone’s value goes up.”
- It has been a tough month for former Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who has been knocked to the floor three times by three players who all were ejected. Wolves guard Jeff Teague body-checked Rubio into the Wolves’ bench nearly three weeks ago and Thursday, first Phoenix’s Jared Dudley shoved Rubio to the floor and then teammate Marquese Criss did it again as soon as Rubio got up. They did so, apparently, because Rubio had stepped over Criss while he was on the floor after a missed dunk.
“This is a problem for our team when these things happen and they happen multiple times,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “It becomes cumulative so the other team, they move on to the next game and it happens again to us with a different team and then it happens to us again with another team. ... Guys are going to have each other’s backs. Where that goes when it gets like that, you never know what’s going to happen. Those guys in that locker room, there’s a brotherhood and they’re going to defend each other.”
- Out since late January, the Wizards’ John Wall is expected to begin contact work this week on his road back from knee surgery. Before Saturday’s game against Indiana, the Wizards were 13-8 in games without him, thanks plenty to backcourt mate Bradley Beal.
“It’s different seeing him out there because we haven’t seen him for a long time,” Beal said. “It’s like we welcomed back a new player onto the team. It’s good. We’re excited. I know he’ll be back in no time, for sure. He looks really good.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Sunday: 6 p.m. vs. Houston
Tuesday: 7 p.m. vs. L.A. Clippers
Friday: 6:30 p.m. at New York
Saturday: 5 p.m. at Philadelphia
All games on FSN
Player to watch: James Harden, Rockets
Target Center fans will get their last look this season — the playoffs excluded, perhaps — at Harden and his devastating crossover move that Wolves star Karl-Anthony Towns sought pointers about at All-Star weekend in February.
“There’s no more smiling, no more buddy-buddy stuff. We’re trying to do something special.”
Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson on games that are growing more competitive as the Western Conference playoff race tightens.