Nemanja Bjelica Is Minnesota Timberwolves' 'Other' Prized Rookie

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2015

Fenerbahce Ulker's Nemanja Bjelica, right, shoots over Real's K. C. Rivers, second right, during the Euroleague Final Four semifinal basketball match between Real Madrid and Fenerbahce Ulker in Madrid, Spain, Friday, May 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

Minnesota Timberwolves fans have heard and seen a lot of much-heralded No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns in recent weeks. Duke point guard and hometown hero Tyus Jones is another exciting addition.

But there's a third rookie joining the pack who will also turn heads. Serbian forward Nemanja Bjelica, who was drafted by the Wolves in 2010, is finally crossing the Atlantic and joining Flip Saunders' bunch.

The 6'10" 27-year-old is fresh off winning the Euroleague MVP for Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce Ulker. He brings a versatile skill set to the NBA and should help bolster the Wolves' frontcourt depth. Bjelica's pro experience includes stops in Serbia, Austria, Spain and Turkey, and he also earned a silver medal with the Serbian national team in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

2014-15 Per-game Stats with Fenerbahce Ulker
MINPTSREBASTSTLBLKFG%3P%FT%PER
26.311.58.21.81.00.5.540.372.70822.2
Realgm.com

How much of Bjelica's European exploits will translate to the Association, and what exactly can Minnesota expect from him in 2015-16?

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

With a long frame, terrific basketball IQ and smooth skills, Bjelica is a stretch 4 who can also operate as a point forward in some scenarios.

Bjelica's height and long arms allow him to shoot over most NBA-sized defenders. He'll immediately serve as a dangerous catch-and-shoot weapon off the bench, offering a quick release and a great track record behind the international arc. Bjelica shot 41 percent from three-land in 2013-14 and 37 percent in 2014-15, and his accuracy extends out to NBA range. This shooting prowess will help space the floor for penetrators like Ricky Rubio and slashers like Andrew Wiggins.

He won't be explosive enough on drives to consistently create separation in isolation, but Bjelica can effectively handle the rock in a couple of ways.

First, he's adept at attacking closeouts and then reacting to the help defense. If a weak side defender rotates quickly, Bjelica has the smarts and dexterity to find the open man. When the help doesn't arrive fast enough, his long strides and wingspan assault the hoop.

The Serbian star is also an effective facilitator coming off screens, presenting the triple threat of driving, pulling up or dishing to the roll man. He'll instantly enhance Minny's ball movement and creativity, as Slovenian pro Damir Radenovic explains, per Canis Hoopus:

Nemanja possesses good ball skills and passing instincts. When an opponent tries matching up his athleticism by going small and defending him with a perimeter player, his high vantage point helps him see over smaller defenders. At his height he can run a pick-and-roll and vast majority of his assists led to scores at the rim or from three-point range.

Bjelica will collaborate more smoothly with his teammates than most NBA rookies because he's learned from some of Europe's greatest mindsparticularly Fenerbahce Ulker skipper Zeljko Obradovic and Serbian national team coach Aleksandar Dordevic.

Saunders has noticed Bjelica's passing instincts and knows it will be one of his most valuable assets.

"What I like about Nemanja as much as anything is that he knows how to make other people better," Saunders told reporters, per FoxSports.com. "He can really pass the basketball, and that's something that Europeans thrive on...that's one of the things when they come over here that does help them."

Bjelica will supply unique flexibility in Minnesota's offense because he can operate as the handler or screener in pick-and-roll scenarios. That's something few rookies can claim.

Although he's 6'10", Bjelica won't use many possessions on the low block. He's much more of a face-up player than a back-to-the-basket option. Most of his interior buckets will come from weak side cuts, straight line drives or offensive rebounds.

It will take a little while for Bjelica to adjust on the defensive side. The vertical and horizontal athleticism of the NBA can't be simulated anywhere else, and the Wolves' shaky team defense won't do him any favors.

However, there's evidence to believe he'll hold his own.

Blejica will have trouble keeping up with ultra-agile wings, but he's shown enough foot speed to guard power forwards and even challenge some small forwards. Most importantly, he offers magnificent length and outstanding effort on that end of the floor.

Uncredited/Associated Press

This blend of size and energy produced 8.2 boards per game in 2014-15 (12.5 per 40 minutes) on a bevy of hustle plays, and most of it will transfer to the NBA. Bjelica will contest shots and should be able to pull down 5-7 caroms per game for the Wolves while playing about 15-20 minutes per game.

Saunders is drawn to the Serbian import due to his NBA-ready skills, so he's not going to bury Bjelica on the bench.

It won't take long for Bjelica to mesh well with Minnesota's second unit. He complements forward Shabazz Muhammad nicely, and he'll present an accessible target for Jones. Bjelica also has the chops to execute crisply as a supplementary player alongside stars like Rubio, Wiggins and Towns.

While he won't contend for Rookie of the Year, Bjelica will churn out better two-way efficiency than most newcomers. If he plays in the 20-minute range, he'll have a chance to sneak onto the All-Rookie Second team.

Dan O'Brien covers the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.

Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR

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