MINNEAPOLIS — Five years after Nemanja Bjelica’s rights were acquired by Minnesota, the Timberwolves have finally added him to the roster.
The wait was worth it for this 27-year-old rookie-to-be. In his mind, Bjelica believed he was ready for the NBA right away. Now that he’s arriving with more experience and a Euroleague MVP award, well, he ought to be all the better for it.
The Wolves obtained Bjelica in 2010 through a draft-day trade of then-inconsequential late picks with the Washington Wizards in 2010. The native of Serbia has played the five seasons since then in Europe, until the Wolves signed him last week to a three-year, $11.7 million contract. There were opportunities to trade Bjelica over that time, Wolves president of basketball operations and coach Flip Saunders said, but they didn’t want to give up on his potential.
"I am very happy because I will come to the NBA this way, because I know how it was very tough and difficult but I didn’t suffer," Bjelica said Wednesday at an introductory news conference. "I want to show to everybody that I deserve to be here."
At one point, Bjelica said he needs to "learn many things here." Saunders then turned to the 6-foot-10, 235-pound Bjelica and said with a pat on the back, "We’ll teach you."
Bjelica shot 54.1 percent from the field and 37.4 percent from 3-point range while averaging 11.5 points and 8.2 rebounds over 63 combined games last season for Fenerbahce Ulker in Euroleague and Turkish Basketball League action. Statistics are smaller overseas because players play fewer minutes than in the NBA, often only 25 or so per game even for the stars.
"Five years was like 100 years for me, but I believe in myself," Bjelica said.
The Wolves ranked 25th out of 30 in the league last season in 3-point shooting at 33.2 percent, so Saunders has been aiming to address that. Damjan Rudez, a player similar to Bjelica acquired in a trade with Indiana last week that sent Chase Budinger to the Pacers, was another move made with that weakness in mind.
Bjelica can play either forward spot, but Saunders has said often he’d prefer a "position-less" team to maximize flexibility in terms of matchups on defense. This team has no shortage of forwards, though, so Bjelica isn’t coming with a clear path to playing time.
"What I like about Nemanja as much as anything is that he knows how to make other people better. He can really pass the basketball, and that’s something that Europeans thrive on. They work on it, and that’s one of the things when they come over here that does help them," Saunders said.
Bjelica’s favorite player as a youth was Allen Iverson. He spoke of his fortune to be able to play on a team with Kevin Garnett. Having a couple of Europeans in Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic already on the roster? "Whole family is happy," Bjelica said.
He chose No. 88 for his jersey, the first player in franchise history to wear it. LaVine already had the number he wanted.
"So I chose to be, let’s say, ‘Double eight,’" Bjelica said, smiling.
Saunders spoke highly of Bjelica’s commitment to the Serbian national team this summer and also of his fearlessness.
"He’s got a lot of confidence. That’s one of the things that really attracted us to him," Saunders said. "He can come in and he can have an impact. Some players come in, and they want to just wait and see. That’s not how he is."