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Nemanja Bjelica: the Swiss Army Knife from Serbia

June 26th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Nemanja Bjelica was the third European player that got called in the Madison Square Garden on Thursday. The Serbian forward was some kind of late developer as he was not considered as a major talent a few years ago. But over the last two seasons, he played himself into the Serbian Senior National Team and the automatic eligible player has now been drafted.

Bjelica was a member of the different Partizan Belgrade Youth teams in his early days but he could never crack the rotation of the Senior Team back then. At the age of 19, he transferred to Austria where he played for Arkadia Traiskirchen which is the place where his agency Interperformances places lots of young players that need some playing time. Normally, the prospects that the agency sends there are not the top prospects in their portfolio as so far, none has really shined after the Austrian experience. Nemanja Bjelica however used his season in Traiskirchen where he averaged 8.5ppg, 3.5rpg and 1.2apg while shooting 41.5% from 3FGs at his best and came back as a better player. Luka Bassin, who is the youth coach of Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia followed his career and told us the following about Bjelica’s debuts.

His career is very strange and I always admired players with great character. He was member of Partizan Youth teams and after that, as a junior, he went to Austria and when he came back to Serbia (Crvena Zvezda), he  was a prospect. Before, he was even thinking about quitting basketball.

His first season back in Serbia for Crvena Zvezda was already promising but still far away from being a NBA consideration prospect by just looking at the stats. He played 24 games in the Adriatic League where he had 4.0ppg, 2.4rpg and 1.4apg at the age of 21 already. In general, the best Serbian prospects at this age are already major contributors on that level. But the word on him spread slowly around the globe and Jonathan Givony had the following on him when he travelled Europe back in November 2008.

Luck would have it though that we would be able to take in a short glimpse at what might be an intriguing prospect for down the road, Serbian Nemanja Bjelica. Surprisingly never having played for any of the various Serbian national teams, Bjelica is having somewhat of a breakout season, seeing solid playing time at a very high level of competition, in basically his first season of professional basketball.

Despite standing 6-10, Bjelica saw some minutes as a defacto point forward, being asked to bring the ball up the floor and get his team into their offense in this all-important road game in a fairly hostile environment. That should tell you a little bit about the confidence that Pesic has in this kid, and he couldn’t help but smile when asked about him afterwards in the press conference, noting that he is indeed a very intriguing prospect, while taking the politically correct approach to saying that they have many nice youngsters they are developing. He did throw out the obligatory Toni Kukoc comparison, which we heard from other sources as well.

Bjelica is a very long and skinny wing player, reasonably athletic, with a solid, yet underdeveloped frame, looking quite comfortable putting the ball on the floor with solid ball-handling skills and a nice first step, and even going into the paint to post up his matchup on one occasion. His decision making skills seemed a bit too erratic to fully trust at this level, and he was quickly benched after just a few minutes out on the floor. Defensively he has the length and footwork needed to compete on the perimeter, even if there is obviously work for him to do on this end of the floor. Still, he’s a guy to keep under the radar for now to see how he develops. He did show a very nice stroke from beyond the arc in warmups.

Out of this first season, Bjelica was selected to play for the Serbian team at the Universiade in Belgrade during the summer of 2009 and he averaged 7.0ppg and 5.7rpg to win the Gold Medal. This performance helped him to earn a first ever selection for the Serbian Senior National team.

With the National Team, Bjelica played an excellent Eurobasket in a specific role as defender but without scoring a lot. I covered the tournament in Poland and had the following on him after the impressive run of the Serbs.

Nemanja Bjelica is one of the most interesting prospects who played at the Eurobasket 2009. Being 2m09 tall, Bjelica can play the SF position and even if he never found his shooting rhythm during the tournament, he showed that he has all the tools to become a great player in the next years. Athletically, Bjelica has quite nice leaping ability, has good speed with the ball and also laterally on defense and he displays a nice wingspan. Everything is there to become a high class defender on the wing, the role that he saw the most minutes in with Serbia during the Eurobasket.

Due to his athletic skills, he is an above average shot blocker for his SF position and he is not afraid to go reject the big guys from the help side. He is highly active in the defensive rebound (he was the best Serbian rebounder of the tournament despite playing only 17 minutes per game and grabbing only 2 in the last two games combined).

Offensively, it was not the best days for Bjelica as his shot was not falling at all, but he never lost his confidence and took the open looks that he got. One play that I remember particularly well was an offensive situation where Bjelica missed a dunk on the drive, sprinted back on defense and on the next offensive situation immediately got the ball back in the corner to hit the big three pointer from there.

Bjelica is certainly a player that some NBA team will take a closer look at as he is one of these rare combinations of height, athleticism, shooting and overall basketball skills with a defensive presence. With Crvena Zvezda in Serbia, he will certainly get a lot of minutes this season in the Adriatic League as well as in the EuroCup and he should be able to get a look at in the 2nd round in 2010.

After the trip to Poland, Bjelica really improved his numbers with his Club Team as well as the 2009/2010 season that led him up the NBA Draft helped him to produce 8.5ppg, 5.8rpg and 2.0apg in the Eurocup. Draftexpress scouted him again in February 2010 and was still very high on him.

Bjelica’s biggest strengths revolve around his terrific ball-handling ability and passing skills. He can grab a rebound and take the ball coast to coast without the slightest bit of hesitation, and is extremely dangerous creating shot-opportunities for himself and others out of pick and roll situations. He does an excellent job of finding the open man in transition, and makes some extremely creative drive and dish passes thanks to his terrific court vision. Watching him play, it doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that his feel for the game is obviously very good.

Players with his combination of size, skills and basketball IQ are quite rare, which is why many respected NBA scouts are very high on him, even if he has some glaring flaws to his game that must be addressed. Reportedly not being in a huge rush to make the jump to the NBA at this point, Bjelica is the type of player a team can draft and stash in Europe to see how he develops over the next few seasons, which makes him a solid candidate to hear his name called somewhere in the second round.

It comes clearly out of all these reports what makes Bjelica so special that the Timberwolves really wanted him: versatility, size  and athletic abilities; a real Swiss Army knife. The Wolves really wanted to get the most information on him as possible as the management travelled to Serbia to scout him in person. Even some late minute rumors about a potential deal with Benetton Treviso which has been denied in between did not prevent the team from Minneapolis to get him through a trade with Washington.

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