It was five years ago that Nemanja Bjelica, just drafted by the Timberwolves, came to Minneapolis to have his picture taken with the rest of the team’s draftees.
Five years. Seems a lot longer than that, at least to Bjelica.
“That five years was like 100 years for me,” he said Wednesday, back in Minneapolis, getting his picture taken. This time though, it’s different. When Bjelica was first drafted the Wolves viewed him as a part of their future. Five years later, he’s a part of the team.
Bjelica with 2010 draft choices Lazar Heyward and Wesley Johnson. File photo.
Recently-signed by president of basketball operations – and coach – Flip Saunders, Bjelica is coming to Minnesota ready to be a regular part of Saunders’ rotation. This is something that, frankly, he felt he was ready for in 2010. At least now the Wolves completely agree.
“To his credit, with what he’s been able to do these last five years in developing his game, he’s put himself in a situation to not only come to the NBA, but have a huge impact within the NBA and within our organization,’’ Saunders said.
To Saunders, Bjelica has been ready to come over for a couple years. But it was important, he felt, that Bjelica needed to come to Minnesota and get right on the court. Two years ago the Wolves were a different team, more veteran, and playing time would have been hard to come by. Now he is joining a team filled with youth. Bjelica brings years of professional experience.
And if it meant paying dues in Europe? OK.
“I’m very excited to be here, finally,’’ he said. “I was drafted five years ago, finally I’m here. I’m very happy and honored to be here, be a part of the Minnesota Timberwolves. … My dream finally came true, and I will become an NBA player.’’
But don’t pigeonhole him. Saunders went out of his way not to label the 6-10 Bjelica as either a small forward or power forward. Saunders is trying to build a team with players with position flexibility, and Bjelica is a prime example.
“The big thing is he’s different than our players,” Saunders said. “He can handle the basketball, he can shoot the three. He can move around the floor, run pick and rolls. We don’t have anyone with his size who can do that.’’
That said, there will be a learning curve. Bjelica will have to learn to defend at the NBA level. He will likely have to put more muscle on his frame. But he come to Minnesota having played in big games in Europe and for the Serbian national team -- a team he will play for this summer. He knows how to move the ball, create flow.
“What I like about Nemanja is that he knows how to make other people better,’’ Saunders said. “He can really pass the basketball. ‘’
And Bjelica? He’s just happy to finally be here. A kid who grew up with Allen Iverson as his idol is now thrilled to be Kevin Garnett’s teammate. Actually he’s just happy to finally be in the NBA.
“I’m very happy to come to the NBA this way, because I know it was very tough and difficult,’’ he said about the dues he paid in Europe waiting to get to the NBA. “I wanted to show everybody I deserved to be here. This is a great opportunity for me.’’