Whether playing professionally in Europe or now here all grown up in America, new Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica has heard his name pronounced just about every way possible — except, of course, the right way usually — by friends and fans who don’t speak his native Serbian.
When it rolls off his tongue, it sounds something like, “Nem-en-ya Bee-a-lihzt-ah.”
When others say it, it sounds like everything from “Nah-man-jah” to “Bah-jell-ah-kah.”
By any pronunciation, they know him as the 2015 Euroleague MVP and a star at the recently completed Eurobasket championships whom many called just “Professor Big Shots” because of its simplicity.
“I’ve heard everything,” he said Wednesday evening after his second NBA practice with the Wolves. “I don’t have a problem with that because they couldn’t say my name in Turkey or Spain, so no problem.”
But they knew the name just the same because of the play from an offensively gifted 6-10 power forward who still possess all the skills of a point guard even after a growth spurt left him too tall to really play there.
Selected by the Wolves in the 2010 draft’s second round, he has reached the NBA at age 27 years after he first expected he’d play in Minnesota. He played three seasons in Spain, then two more in Istanbul before the Wolves signed him to a three-year contract in July, not too long before he went to the European championships and impressed by beating Dirk Nowitzki and Germany with a last-second shot and starred for Serbia before it was beaten by Lithuania in the semifinals.
That game-winner popularized the Professor Big Shots nickname.
“They call me that in Turkey and also that one game in Germany,” he said. “I like these nicknames. I don’t know why [they call me that]. You have to ask them. My friends call me that [because] I do everything on the court, blah, blah, blah. I’m probably not Professor because I finished university.”
Here, he projects as a play-making “stretch” power forward who still must learn the NBA and new food, language and customs in a city where he’ll move from a hotel to his new home Friday.
“I need to speak better English,” he said, “but I do my best.”
He calls himself “satisfied” and “excited” to finally be in an NBA camp that he calls “tough, but it’s supposed to be tough.” He also sounds mighty impressed with new teammate Kevin Garnett.
“KG is unbelievable, I cannot believe,” he said. “He is league champion, 22 years in the league. He’s one of the best because of his attitude. He wants to show an example of how we’re supposed to practice, how we need to be on the court.”
Bjelica, himself, appears to have already impressed interim coach Sam Mitchell.
“Very smart, moves the ball, can shoot the ball, just wants to play, unselfish to a fault,” Mitchell said, ticking off Bjelica’s attributes. “I like the way he plays. I’ve seen him on tape, but I like him a lot more in person.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that Mitchell can pronounce the new guy’s name just yet.
“All I can do is give him the English version, I’m doing the best I can,” Mitchell said. “I’m sure the players will figure out something with a nickname and if I hear it and he’s OK with it, I’ll call him that. If not, I better learn his name.”
In Turkey, Bjelica said his friends called him “Belly” rather than Professor.
“Not belly, like stomach,” he said. “But like writing, because of my last name. Call me Belly, is much easier for my friends.”
• Mitchell emphasized defense once again on Day 2 of training camp, but mixed a good measure of scrimmaging in as well Wednesday.
“Still haven’t put in our offense yet,” Mitchell said about two days that have been injury free. “Still working on defense.”
• Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns after coming through his second consecutive 3½ hour practice: “I’m 19, I should feel the best…This is just great, to see we’re really coming together as a team. We’re all in great condition, even the vets.”
•Veteran Tayshaun Prince, who has played for Detroit, Memphis and Boston, on the Wolves’ new $26 million practice facility: “This is top notch, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter where you practice as long as bring your heart and wear it on your sleeve and you get work done.”
• Towns said after Wednesday’s practice that he doesn’t just want to reach the playoffs his rookie season, he intends his team will advance out of the first round. Said Mitchell: “Karl hasn’t played an NBA game yet. The reality will set in when you start to play that first game of 82. But that’s the mind-set you got to have. Whether that happens this year, we don’t know because we haven’t started to play games, but I want them to start thinking about that. You want that inside your guys.”