First things first: [NEH-MAHN-YA BE-YELL-EET-SAH] or more simply, [Belly] (which I’ll spell B-j-e-l-i).
The Sixers signed forward Nemanja Bjelica using the mid-level exception, a dollar value of $4.449 million. Bjelica is a stretch-4, who can man the 3 a bit as well, playing all of three of his NBA seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves. After Ersan Ilyasova smartly jumped on 3-year, $21 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers needed someone like Bjelica to fill the void left by ‘Sova’s departure.
Bjelica was drafted 35th overall in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards and then traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Bjelica, though, would not make his NBA debut until the 2015-2016 NBA season. Why, you ask? Bjelica saw significant success in the Euroleague, culminating in an MVP campaign for the 2014-2015 season.
Bjelica’s MVP trophy is evidence that he’s a well-traveled basketball player. But Bjelica hasn’t gotten a ton of experience stateside despite preparing for his 4th NBA season. In the previous three, Bjelica has totaled just 962 FGA. That’s it — 962 shots attempted from the field for his entire NBA career. (371 in the ‘17-’18 season but who’s counting?) To put that number into context, Joel Embiid racked up 1056 FGA this season alone. Bjeli’s relatively small sample size of shots is reflective of his lack of time on the court. This past season was the first time “Professor Big Shots” — as he’s apparently known — eclipsed the 20 minutes per game mark. But Bjeli is 30-years-old. That’s what’s kind of weird about him. He theoretically has more to offer, but why haven’t we seen it yet?
Bjeli wasn’t in a position to display his entire skill set during his stint in Minnesota. Yet he’s at an age now where he just kind of is what he is. One might call him a 3&D-ish type player, he just isn’t really physically built like your typical 3&D wing. If you’ll take my word for it, move on to the next paragraph. If not, all of the following percentages are in regards to 3PT: over his 3-year NBA career, he’s at a 37.0% (just barely on the good side of average). Adding in his numbers from Europe, Bjelica comes to 36.0%, but there’s some peaks, valleys and… divots... in there. For example, he shot just 31.6% in ‘16-’17 (177 attempts) and 28.4% in ‘11-’12 (102 attempts). But he shot 41.5% in ‘17-’18 (183 attempts) and 41.6% in ‘13-’14 (89 attempts). I think it’s fair to say he’s an average 3PT shooter. However, it wouldn’t be a shock if next season, Bjeli ended up with a percentage in either elite or below average territory. As for his defense, he’s deceptively effective and I’ll write how below.
So where, generally, does this combo-forward (6’10”) fit within the Sixers’ roster and rotation? I wouldn’t be comfortable with him playing small-ball center. I just don’t believe in his ability to protect the rim. He slots in nicely in the Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova roles, minus any small-ball 5 minutes. Bjelica should do well coming off the bench as a sharpshooting big man who can spot up for Ben Simmons or TJ McConnell or Markelle Fultz and open up the floor. Per Synergy, Bjelica ranked in the 79th percentile in spot up shooting last season, carrying a value of 1.109 points per play when spotting up. Combine his almost braggadocious range with his ability to convert catch-and-shoots, and his presence will open up the lane for Ben Simmons or make teams pay when it doesn’t. On defense, Bjeli might actually have a more positive impact than he does on offense. Although he lacks the speed and core strength you’d typically associate with a stout defender, Bjelica uses his length to cover ground and make the opposition uncomfortable. A quick guard will get the better of Bjeli if isolated. But for the most part, Bjeli can hold his own. Rebounding is an area of moderate concern. Bjelica is often around the perimeter on offense, so he hardly ever gets offensive boards. On the opposite end, his numbers aren’t bad (5.8 DRB/36), but I worry about his frame and vertical leaping in regards to rebounding.
The Sixers nabbed themselves a player who could maybe suffice as a low end starter on some teams, yet did so with someone who will fill a bench role (7th, 8th, 9th man off the bench). For the room mid-level exception, that’s good value in my opinion. I’m not sure it’s what the Sixers needed most, as I’m skeptical about how Bjeli would fair in a playoff environment. But he does fill a role of need, again, left by Ilyasova’s absence. Coming up on 31 years of age, Bjeli might be in for a slight decline, although he doesn’t have a lot of miles on him. The Sixers will get a win here and a win there from Bjeli, as the Sixers march toward the goal of a no. 1 seed.
Nemanja has some RANGE; it’s really quite impressive. Bjeli has the ability to pull up from almost anywhere in the half court. Set plays, in transition, expiring shot clock — doesn’t matter the scenario, Bjeli has no qualms about jacking from long distances.
The following clip includes makes and misses, because I want to show that I’m not cherry-picking extraordinary shots:
(Side: Let me apologize for the low-quality graphics. But I just got the Adobe Creative Suite and I’m having a hell of a time experimenting.)
It’s almost comical how comfortable he is when letting it fly from 27-30 feet out. I watched a good amount of his 3PT attempts from last season, upwards of 100 of them, and I don’t recall seeing him toe the 3PT line in any clip; I’m sure he does occasionally, but the frequency of shots in which he doesn’t is telling. In other words, Bjeli seems to prefer shooting deeper; not a couple inches off the line, but a whole foot (or a couple feet) from the line.
This from-a-different-area-code range pairs fantastically with Ben Simmons. I’m not sure how much the two will get to be on the court together, but Simmons has the passing strength to kick it out further and more powerfully than most point guards. The benefit of having Bjeli way out at 28 feet is that a) it will open up the floor in a big way and b) Bjeli should get a ton of wide open looks. And last, Bjeli will make for an excellent trailer to Ben Simmons when in transition. Speaking of transition!
Bjelica is surprisingly effective in transition. I say it’s a surprise because he’s not particularly athletic. However, Bjeli runs the floor fluidly and always knows where to fill lanes. Whether he’s heading for the corner for a 3PT, or cutting to the basket for a layup, his size helps him to be a good target for fast break initiators:
Transition is another specific asset of Bjeli’s game that compliments Ben Simmons. If you notice in some of those clips, Bjeli is waaay out ahead of the defense. He’s pretty opportunistic when it comes to getting down the floor after an opponent’s miss. He’s not the greatest finisher, and I would expect some plays that force the question, “How the hell did he miss that?” However, Bjeli should have his fair share of really easy, high-percentage shots.
Putting the ball on the floor
When it comes to creating his own shot off the bounce, Bjeli is certainly willing. But willing and effective are two very different things. It’s not that Bjeli can’t score off the bounce, it’s just that he’s not exactly a threat to do so.
Reason being: Bjeli isn’t creative in a dribbling sense. I’d say that Bjeli doesn’t have a go-to move, but that implies he has any moves at all. Bjeli’s dribble penetration is similar to my own when playing pick-up basketball: go toward the vicinity of the rim, but don’t allow the ball to be exposed (meaning don’t even attempt a dribble move) and just use a rigid layup/floater/runner package to toss the ball toward the hoop, hoping it goes in. I mean, that’s it to a T. And Bjeli refuses to use his left hand.
While he’ll occasionally score penetrating the lane, usually in attacking closeouts, it’s really a matter of using his height to get a clear floater over his defender. Bjeli isn’t going to break any ankles or trick a big with an up-and-under. He’s not as hopeless as someone like Robert Covington when scoring off the bounce, but Bjeli’s also not by any means a prolific scorer off the dribble.
Creating for teammates
Without a refined handle, and typically going to the rim fully intending to shoot, Bjeli’s not an initiator. As a spot-up specialist, his role didn’t/won’t allow him to rack up assists (just an NBA career 2.5 AST/36). But he’s no slouch when passing into scoring situations, as long as he notices them. He uses his height and his position out on the perimeter to see over the defense and find teammates at the rim.
I really don’t expect Bjeli to often find teammates opportunities to score. But in Brett Brown’s pass-heavy offense, Bjeli is certainly capable of totalling a handful of assists every now and then for teammates looking to cut. Being a 2nd unit player, Bjeli may get some tic with Zhaire Smith who largely predicates his offense on cutting to space. Maybe the two will find some chemistry together.
Hey, another decent segue. When I think of a cutter, I imagine someone with speed, maybe some leaping ability, crafty finisher around the rim. None of those characteristics should be used to describe Bjeli. Still, he successfully finds open space. He does so using a) an awareness of the defense’s positioning, b) deceptively quick first-step bursts and c) this weird ability to just... blend in.
It’s pretty clear how Bjeli fits alongside someone like Ben Simmons. Bjeli isn’t going to put the Sixers offense over the top. But I expect him to fit in seamlessly with the roster. And Bjeli isn’t going to consistently score night to night. He’ll have ineffective games, for sure. But similar to the way Sixers fans have seen Ersan Ilyasova drop an unexpected 18 point game here and there, Bjeli can as well.
It’s tough to figure out exactly what kind of level defender Bjelica is. His defensive metrics don’t all agree (DRPM says he’s solid, DBPM says he’s a very slight negative, and the on-off numbers suggest Minnesota’s D was 1.5 points better when he was off the floor), and he doesn’t accumulate traditional defensive stats. But watching him, you can see he is able to make an impact, and it’s my belief he’s a good defender.
The following clip is from a game the Timberwolves played against the Golden State Warriors late last season. Bjeli was often tasked with guarding Kevin Durant in the game. That previous sentence might inspire chuckles, but Bjelica was pretty effective against the perennial MVP candidate:
On any given night, maybe KD hits all of those shots. But the clip demonstrates a few things:
- Bjeli, while not quick or very strong, is able to be a pesky defender using his length in annoying fashion. On one play, KD gets what looks like a wide open three using a pump fake to get Bjeli off his feet. But Bjeli’s long reach keeps KD from pulling the trigger.
- Bjeli works hard on defense.
- Bjeli takes pride in his defense, waving off a teammate who at first volunteered to guard KD.
Brett Brown should be able to, at the very least, put Bjeli in position to be of neutral value on defense. However, I don’t see any reason Bjeli can’t be a plus defender. He should be able to do a bit of switching between 1-4, but mostly 3 & 4. I say 1s and 2s because while it’s not ideal, I think Bjeli can have some success defending 2nd unit guards after a switch. It should be negated as much as possible. But he’s not hopeless, as he uses his long strides and long arms to make up ground on anyone who beats him with a quick first step.
Overall, Nemanja Bjelica should be very solid bench contributor for the Sixers. He won’t take any starting gigs, and his minutes may widely fluctuate around 18 MPG. He’s not some diamond in the rough about to break out at age 30, and he will have games where he seems useless. But Bjeli fits the Ilyasova role perfectly, and that’s just what he is.
Canis Hoopus Q&A
During the process of putting this piece together, I reached out to Eric in Madison (his SB Nation user), managing editor of Canis Hoopus. I wanted to ask Eric questions about Bjeli, given Eric’s familiarity with Bjeli. I wasn’t sure how to go about using his answers, because they were all very insightful and backed up what I was seeing in the data and film. So instead of picking out quips, I thought I’d just put the entire Q&A in this piece.
KFL: I’ve been trying to find comps for Bjeli, and I keep coming back to a player Sixers fans are very familiar with: Dario Saric.
Eric: I like Saric as a comp. One of the things about the Wolves offense is that they don’t pass the ball much. So Bjelica often didn’t touch it as often as he should have, for both shooting and play making purposes. He’s a pretty good rebounder, and in fact when he was in the lineup for Jimmy Butler, one of the reasons that lineup succeeded is because they rebounded the hell out of the ball. On defense, Bjelica is going to get beat by quicker threes--he just doesn’t have that kind of quickness. But he’s smart and always where he’s supposed to be. He’s definitely been a more reluctant shooter than Saric, but hopefully he gets more comfortable letting fly with a new team.
KFL: The Sixers had trouble with the Celtics in the playoffs mainly because they didn’t have enough defensive depth. Can Bjeli stay on the court during the playoffs, or is he someone who will be relegated to the bench when rotations shorten up?
Eric: This raises the bigger question: Is there such thing as a “Power Forward” position anymore? In the playoffs it’s going to be difficult for him to match up against, say, Jayson Tatum. He might wind up being best used as a small ball five in the post-season. He did well as a three for the Wolves in the regular season when Butler was injured, but I’m not sure he doesn’t get exposed trying to play him vs. straight wings in the playoffs. Obviously he can play against more traditional fours, and as noted, perhaps as a stretch five vs. most centers.
KFL: How do you see Bjeli fitting in next to someone like Ben Simmons?
Eric: Love. It. Not only can he benefit from the catch-and-shoot opportunities Simmons can create, but I like Bjelica on the roll if they run some PnR, and like him attacking closeouts and making plays for himself and others against a scrambling defense. Who doesn’t Simmons help offensively? What a weapon.
KFL: Are you happy/disappointed/indifferent seeing Bjeli leave the T-Wolves?
Eric: Both happy and disappointed. He needed a change of environment. Just wasn’t going to get the consistent playing time off the bench for a Tom Thibodeau coached team. He averaged 34 minutes a night when he started, under 15 off the bench. I’m disappointed because I think he’s capable of being a very helpful player, and the Wolves didn’t seem to understand how to make that happen. (To be fair, he had his stretches of inconsistent play as well.)
KFL: What’s one habit or trait of Bjeli’s play that drives you mad?
Eric: His hesitation to shoot at times. He doesn’t see himself as just a shooter, so sometimes he gets it when he’s open, but doesn’t take the shot. Needs to let fly.
KFL: Bjeli got the room mid-level exception. Forget the market value in a year unfriendly to the players, is this contract about right for the value he’ll bring? Worth more?
Eric: He’s certainly worth more. This seems like a bargain. I thought he’d get more. He’s a solid rotation guy — can give you 20+ minutes a night of decent quality. That’s closer to a full mid-level player than a room player.
KFL: Lots of people seem to think Bjeli didn’t get to fully utilize his cupboard of skills. Would you agree with this, or would you say he is what he is?
Eric: I’ve spoken a bit to this in other answers. He’s capable of more — the Wolves offense lacked ball and player movement, which stifled him. That said, he’s 30, and I don’t want to go too far with this. He isn’t going to blossom into some kind of big all-around star. Mostly what you’ll get is a shooter with some secondary play making skills and decent rebounding/defending. That’s valuable.
KFL: Can Bjeli create off the dribble, or is he strictly a spot up shooter?
Eric: He can create off the dribble. It sometimes looks ungainly, but good things often happen when he drives. He’s a decent finisher and good at finding others on the move. It’s not going to be a huge staple for you — that’s what you have Ben Simmons for. But when he gets the opportunity, he can make things happen with the dribble.