It was five years ago that Nemanja Bjelica, just drafted by the Timberwolves, came to the Twin Cities to have his picture taken with the rest of the team’s draftees.
To Bjelica, it seems like a lot longer than five years.
“That five years was like 100 years for me,” he said Wednesday, back in the Twin Cities, getting his picture taken again. 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 figures to be a significant part of the team right away.
For the Wolves, it’s perfect timing. Listening to Bjelica, it’s about time.
The Wolves officially announced Bjelica’s signing during a news conference Wednesday. The reigning Euroleague MVP signed a three-year deal worth nearly $12 million.
Flip Saunders, the Wolves president of basketball operations and coach, said he is bringing Bjelica here to be a regular part of his rotation, something the 27-year-old Serbian has felt ready to do for a while. At least now he and 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 of years. But it was important, Saunders felt, that Bjelica get significant minutes right away. Two years ago, Saunders said, 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 as an older rookie with a wealth of professional experience.
And if it meant him paying his dues in Europe? OK.
“I’m very excited to be here, finally,” Bjelica 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.”
Bjelica comes to the Wolves with a proficient outside shot, good passing ability and experience, having played in a lot of big games. But he doesn’t come with an official position. Saunders went out of his way not to label the 6-10, 234-pound Bjelica as either a small or power forward. Saunders is trying to build a team of 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.”
There will be a learning curve. Bjelica will have to learn to defend at the NBA level. And he will likely have to put more muscle on his frame.
Saunders said Bjelica’s basketball IQ usually puts him in the right defensive position. On offense, his skills could shine quickly.
“What I like about Nemanja is that he knows how to make other people better,” Saunders said. “He can really pass the basketball.”
Bjelica grew up with Allen Iverson as his idol and is now thrilled to be Kevin Garnett’s teammate. Actually, he is just happy to finally be in the NBA. Bjelica flew to Las Vegas after Wednesday’s news conference to meet some of his teammates playing in the summer league. Then he is heading back to Europe to play for the Serbian national team before he returns to Minnesota for training camp.
“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. “I wanted to show everybody I deserved to be here. This is a great opportunity for me.”
At one point, Bjelica acknowledged he still had a lot to learn.
Saunders smiled, patted his back and said, “We’ll teach you.”