EuroLeague MVP Nemanja Bjelica on Wednesday exercised an option in his contract with his Turkish team that allows him to leave for the NBA and clears the way for the Timberwolves to sign a player they drafted in the second round five years ago.
Bjelica exercised his reported $1.3 million “out” clause — partly paid by the Wolves — just hours after his contract expired with the Fenerbahce Ulker team in Istanbul. He did so on the same day NBA teams collectively and astoundingly threw money by the hundreds of millions at free agents — everyone from three-time All-Star Kevin Love staying in Cleveland and Tyson Chandler headed to Phoenix to role players such as Al Farouq Aminu and Amir Johnson changing teams — in a flurry of deals during the opening hours of free agency.
And this is before the big money really hits next summer, when the NBA’s new $2.4 billion television contract begins.
Barring a trade, the Wolves’ only expected moves during this year’s free-agency period are signing Bjelica to a three-year contract likely to be worth at least $12 million (and possibly more) and re-signing unrestricted free agent Kevin Garnett to a new contract that probably will pay him between $6 million and $8 million for limited minutes and boundless mentoring.
The Wolves will use a good chunk of their $6 million-ish mid-level exception — an annual salary exception granted to teams over the salary cap — to sign Bjelica, who is from Serbia but has played in Spain and Turkey most recently.
Bjelica’s arrival will add yet another big man to a roster already top-heavy with centers and forwards. The Wolves already have highly paid and injury-prone Nikola Pekovic, No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne, Anthony Bennett and presumably Garnett and still-to- be-signed Robbie Hummel.
They’ll likely have to trade at least one of the aforementioned players — most likely Bennett, who is not scheduled to be part of a summer-league scrimmage at Target Center on Wednesday — to balance their 15-man roster.
“You can always make room,” Wolves basketball boss and coach Flip Saunders said last week about the team’s abundance of big men.
Now they are adding an offensively-skilled player who, at age 27, is experienced at the highest levels of European professional play. Raised as a point guard until he experienced a sudden growth spurt, Bjelica now is a playmaker and shooter in a 6-foot-10 power-forward’s body.
He’ll also become just one of two remnants — starting point guard Ricky Rubio is the other — left over from the years David Kahn ran the franchise’s basketball operations. Replaced by Saunders in May 2013, Kahn drafted Rubio fifth overall in 2009 and Bjelica 35th overall in 2010.
“I do think if he was a player in the draft, he’d be a top 10 pick,” Saunders said about Bjelica.
Bjelica probably won’t play with the Wolves’ summer-league team that begins practices Monday and will play a free 7 p.m. public scrimmage Wednesday at Target Center. Andrew Wiggins, Towns, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Dieng and first-round pick Tyus Jones all are expected to play in the scrimmage, although Wiggins is not expected to play with the team when it begins Las Vegas Summer League play July 10 against D’Angelo Russell and the Los Angeles Lakers.