Wolves prospect Bjelica makes name for self at FIBA World Cup

Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica averaged 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game playing for Serbia at the FIBA World Cup in Spain.

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The United States’ men’s basketball team cruised to an undefeated, unquestionably dominant showing at the FIBA World Cup in Spain, capping it off with a 129-92 dismantling of Serbia in Sunday’s gold medal game. Kyrie Irving, a new teammate of Kevin Love — who, like superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant, didn’t participate — earned tournament MVP honors ahead of his union with James and Love in Cleveland.

But a little-known Wolves prospect proved an obstacle in making a name for himself, even if it’s a little difficult to announce.

Acquired by Minnesota in the 2010 NBA Draft, do-everything swingman Nemanja Bjelica (Nem-MAN-ya BYELL-its-uh) played a crucial role in Serbia’s run to the gold medal game. His 6.9 rebounds per game ranked 16th among World Cup players, and his 11.9 points a contest was 32nd.

The 26-year-old, 6-foot-10 Belgrade native had one of his best performances against the Americans, scoring a team-high-tying 18 points and chipping in four assists. For the tournament, Bjelica averaged 2.8 assists and shot 43.2 percent from the floor.

The Wizards selected him 35th overall in the 2010 NBA Draft and traded him to Minnesota along with Lazar Hayward for Trevor Booker and Hamady N’diaye. The Wolves retain his draft rights until a year after he ceases playing professional basketball outside the NBA — essentially, they never expire.

Bjelica spent this past season with Fenerbahce Ulker Instanbul of the Turkish Basketball League, averaging 10.4 points and 6.1 boards in 24 games. He played the previous three campaigns in Spain before signing a three-year deal with his current club.

Bjelica began playing professional basketball in the Austrian League in 2007 at the age of 19.

Draft Express describes him as a "point guard trapped in a power forward’s body." Not a particularly explosive player, he is remarkably coordinated for a man his size and can shoot both inside and out. Although he starts at small forward, both his professional and national team coaches have used him at point guard and shooting guard at times.

Bjelica’s chances of joining the Wolves roster anytime soon, though, appear slim. Minnesota will have at least 17 players in training camp when it begins at the end of October, and the Wolves are set at the small forward position with Andrew Wiggins, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad, Robbie Hummel, Chase Budinger and perhaps 2014 second-round pick Glenn Robinson III in the mix.

But that doesn’t mean Bjelica will never end up in the NBA. Coaches and general managers enjoy having a second-round pick or two stashed in Europe; the risk they assume is minimal, as most second-round picks don’t make their team’s roster, anyway, and players can be either brought over with a much more refined skill set or used as value-added in complex trades while not counting against their NBA team’s salary cap.

Budinger and Brewer’s contracts are up after the 2015-16 season, and Hummel is on a near-minimum, one-year deal. So if he continues progressing overseas, Bjelica could one day earn at least a training-camp contract or perhaps a summer-league invitation.

If he wants it, that is. According to insidehoops.com, Bjelica made the equivalent of $3.6 million for the 2012-13 season. That’s more than Hummel or former first-round draft picks Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine will make this upcoming campaign.

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