The best way to describe Nemanja Bjelica’s arrival in Minneapolis from Serbia last year was like an airdrop. It was late in the summer, just days away from his first NBA training camp, and it was as if he had parachuted in. This wasn’t enemy territory, but he was certainly a stranger in a strange land.
He had a wife and a daughter. In just a few days he had to find a place to live, get his family settled in. Basically just get his bearings.
And then there was basketball.
For every rookie there is an adjustment to the NBA. The pace, the quickness, the travel, the physical play. It’s just not easy.
Then add a new country, a different language, the stress of moving from Europe and the pile of expectations that Bjelica, now 28, a longtime pro coming off an MVP season in the EuroLeague, was feeling.
“Last year was part of, let’s say, learning,” Bjelica said. “It was stressful.”
Bjelica came to the Wolves as a 6-10, 240-pound forward with a good outside shot and strong passing skills.
But it wasn’t the easiest transition. His first season was marred by knee and foot injuries that knocked him out of 15 games. He missed a few more while on the outside looking in on interim coach Sam Mitchell’s rotation; trying to fit in, he looked to pass while passing up shots. He had times where he couldn’t avoid foul trouble. The season ended with his foot still sore and his ego perhaps a bit bruised.
But it’s better now.
Though it was hard for him, he passed on playing for the Serbia in the Olympic Games to get his right foot totally healthy. And he made sure to get to Minneapolis in July. He met new coach Tom Thibodeau, and he got to work.
He changed his diet, dropped sugars and what he calls “junkie food” and lost nearly 20 pounds. He hit the weight room and added strength, something he knew he needed after spending a season covering NBA power forwards.
Basically, he had the time to get ready.
“When I came, I was MVP of the EuroLeague,” he said. “But I needed to do something else here. I knew I belonged here, and I want to finish my career in the NBA. But I needed to change some things. I needed to work on my body. Now I’m ready. I put work in over the summer. I know what I can expect this year. I’m ready for the season, mentally and physically.”
Days before training camp began, Thibodeau was asked about Bjelica. Immediately, he smiled.
“He’s done a good job,” Thibodeau said. “[He has] that skill set as a power forward — our league has moved more toward that — to spread the floor. It adds another three-point shooter to the group. It’s not just his ability to shoot, it’s his ability to put it on the floor and make plays and be efficient.”
It’s been a natural progression.
Bjelica averaged 5.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists as a rookie. Late in that season, getting more playing time, he averaged 10.5 points, shot over 65 percent and had 6.1 rebounds in the final eight games.
By his own admission, Bjelica is a player who needs confidence to play his best. And he needs to feel his team has confidence in him.
“All my career I like to feel important to the team,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of role I will have; I just want to feel important.”
Being here since July has helped. Thibodeau appears to have gone out of his way to let Bjelica know he’s important to the team. His dedication to training — Karl-Anthony Towns raved about Bjelica’s conditioning after spending July with him in the weight room — has him feeling quicker and stronger.
So far Bjelica has looked strong in the preseason. Playing a stretch-four on a second unit with rookie Kris Dunn, Shabazz Muhammad, Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich, Bjelica has averaged 10.5 points on 44.4 percent shooting. He is 6-for-14 on three-pointers and averaging 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game.
And if he still sometimes passes up the open shot — Thibodeau was on him about that in the preseason opener against Miami in Kansas City — he is playing with more confidence.
“I play my best basketball when I have some kind of freedom, when I can create for myself or my teammates,” he said. “This is like, my most powerful weapon. It’s not that I don’t like to shoot. I like to do everything on the court. I think I have that opportunity.”
Thibodeau has been looking at different combinations in the preseason. He likes Bjelica’s shot and his passing, and he loves the potential for pick-and-roll plays with Bjelica and the center he’s playing with. It is possible that Bjelica could work himself into more minutes with starters like Towns or find himself on the floor late in games when shooting is at a premium.
He appears ready. He’s lighter, stronger and claims to be quicker. He said he loves Thibodeau’s toughness and preparation because it reminds him of the coaching he got in Europe.
And it’s just easier this year. He and his wife are settled in. His daughter is going to preschool in Edina. “My family, they are happy here,” he said. “I mean, the U.S., it’s like a promised country. You have everything here.”
The sky might be the limit on the court, too.
“I can’t promise we’ll play in the playoffs, but this is a team with a bright future,” Bjelica said. “We just need to play hard every game. I hope fans will feel that.”