PORTLAND, ORE. – Back in the starting lineup at small forward, Timberwolves former backup power forward Nemanja Bjelica provides size, shooting and something else.
Someone who has done this before.
When teammate Jimmy Butler missed four January games because of a sore knee, Bjelica started all four and delivered an 18-point, nine-rebound game that helped beat the Clippers in Los Angeles.
“I forgot when Jimmy went down, Belly did great for us,” Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson said. “Especially that L.A. Clipper game. He won that game for us.”
Five weeks later, Butler is out again, sidelined now by a partly torn meniscus that will keep him out the next month at the very least. Bjelica again has been called upon to slide over to start at small forward while Andrew Wiggins moves to Butler’s big-guard spot.
In Monday’s 118-100 victory at Sacramento, Bjelica provided a physical presence to a Wolves team that Kings coach Dave Joerger said presented “too much size.”
At 6-10, there’s nothing small about Bjelica except a small forward’s skill set when it comes to his playmaking and perimeter shooting. He’s the Wolves’ best three-pointer shooter by percentage, at 42.9.
His two three-pointers Monday helped, and what he gives up defensively in agility against smaller players at the position, Bjelica counters by rebounding with his length, positioning with his smarts.
“Some guys will be tough matchup,” he said, “but then also I have an advantage on offense.”
Bjelica provided 12 points as well seven rebounds, four steals and three assists at Sacramento.
On the boards
With a team that he says now must be better collectively more than individually, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau noted Bjelica’s seven rebounds (six of them defensive) at a position where Wiggins has not rebounded the ball efficiently. Gorgui Dieng had six rebounds off the bench, too.
“Belly giving us seven, ‘G’ giving us six, that goes a long way,” Thibodeau said. “We need everybody to contribute in that way. That stuff, it’s not unimportant to winning. Get seven rebounds out of that position and having that length is a big plus for us. Just the threat of his shot opens up the floor, and he also moves really well without the ball.
“If you turn your head, Belly is going to cut.”
With Butler out the past two games, Thibodeau shortened his rotation from nine players to eight and asked Bjelica to play 32-plus minutes in Saturday’s home victory over Chicago and nearly 34 minutes on Monday.
“Of course, nobody can replace Jimmy, like his individual qualities, because he’s our best player,” Bjelica said. “But as a team, we can do a lot of good things. I just try to do my job.”
Gibson said he is “hyped” about Bjelica’s Monday performance, when he did everything but get to the free-throw line on a night when the Wolves went 33-for-36 and outscored the Kings by 21 points there.
“Even when he was broken down 1-on-1, he kept being there,” Gibson said. “He still contested shots. He still rebounded. He did it all. That’s what we’re going to need from him.
‘‘… He’s the European Player of the Year [in 2015] and he can do it all: He can dribble. He can shoot. He can put it on the floor. Belly is a talented player. I’m looking forward to him doing the job.”
If he does it all, it’s with that size and length as well as the style of game that comes from a young point guard who long ago outgrew the position.
“The versatility is big for us,” Thibodeau said. “The shooting adds a lot to our team. We’re long. When you have him at the ‘3,’ you add another 6-11 guy there and that moves Wig to the ‘2’ and you have good length there also. So it’s a different look than with Jimmy, but I think the size there does help us.”
Help is there
If Bjelica struggles with some small-forward matchups offensively, Gibson promises Bjelica’s teammates will lift him up.
“Whatever mismatch he has, we’re going to help him,” Gibson said. “We’re going to have his back 100 percent. That’s one thing about good teams, playoff-bound teams: You hide your weaknesses. You guard it and play through it with your strengths, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
After one night in Houston, Bjelica has gone from playing 15 or fewer minutes to that starting role and playing time that doubled and will stay that way unless, or until, the Wolves use an open roster spot to sign a free agent who can help.
It’s a change Bjelica knows from those four January games.
“I play a lot,” he said. “I’m good, I recover. I’m ready for this.”