In a league that’s changing and downsizing by the season, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau can see a future for 6-10 European forward Nemanja Bjelica upsized as a NBA small forward. Thibodeau started Bjelica there in Sunday’s victory over the Los Angeles Lakers out of necessity and intends to experiment more with him there.
Thibodeau likes the look Bjelica’s presence gives his team alongside starters Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng because of Bjelica’s wingspan and his shooting range.
“The league is shifting a bit,” Thibodeau said. “You see a lot of small forwards playing power forward.”
You also see a lot of point guard-sized players at shooting guard and in a bit of a contrarian thinking, Thibodeau is intrigued by a big lineup in an NBA that’s going small.
Wiggins scored a career-high 47 points Sunday playing primarily as a shooting guard and Bjelica’s 24 points, five three-pointers made and nearly 41 minutes played all were career highs.
“He looked like a ‘3’ man,” said Charlotte coach Steve Clifford, who was impressed with Bjelica’s ball-handling and playmaking. “That would have been the old NBA. When I first got in the league, everyone wanted to play big. It was an iso, one-on-one league. Size was everything.”
Bjelica wasn’t as active Tuesday, scoring only six points and grabbing two rebounds in 21 minutes.
Zach is back
Zach LaVine returned to Tuesday’s starting lineup after he missed Sunday’s game because of what he called “a little tendinitis and a little something else” in his right knee, but swingmen Shabazz Muhammad (knee) and Brandon Rush (big toe) remained out.
“I feel like I’m good now,” LaVine said. “I don’t like missing games. I’ve just got to get it right.”
Muhammad said he was “optimistic” at Tuesday’s morning shoot that he could play, but he didn’t beause of a right knee that has hurt since a game at Brooklyn a week ago. An MRI revealed no damage even though the knee was swollen and hard to bend. “It just kind of flared up on me,” Muhammad said. “I’m fine.”
No Payne, no gain
Little-used forward Adreian Payne played meaningful minutes for the second consecutive game after Thibodeau liked what he saw in Payne’s 10-point, 9-minute performance Sunday against the Lakers.
“He can shoot the ball,” Thibodeau said. “He has a physicality to him. There’s a defensive mindset to him as well. I was really pleased with the way he played.”
• Charlotte had been in town since Sunday evening, but old pals Thibodeau and Clifford — assistants together in New York and Houston long ago — didn’t have time for a meal together. Clifford did emerge from Thibodeau’s office about 90 minutes before game time.
• Towns celebrated his 21st birthday with family in town from New Jersey to join him.
• Rush missed his fifth consecutive game because of a sprained ligament in his right big toe. He said he hopes to practice Wednesday and is aiming to play Thursday against Philadelphia.
• Towns is on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s “Tall Ball” issue that his subscribers’ mailboxes Tuesday.