Marvin Bagley is almost back. What that means for Nemanja Bjelica is a decision head coach Luke Walton will have to make over the next few games.
The veteran forward might have made life a little more difficult for his coach in the team’s 110-106 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday evening.
Since Bagley went down in the season opener, Bjelica has started the last 21 games at power forward. He’s had some ups and downs, but against Dallas, he was on his game.
“One of the best, here for sure,” Bjelica told Grant Napear and Doug Christie following the win. “I was feeling good, coach trusts me, I have a green light to shoot. That’s my advantage on offense. I need to get a little bit better on defense, but the important thing is we won the game.”
A former EuroLeague MVP, Bjelica is a very smart player. He might not have the athleticism that a few of his teammates possess, but he can impact a game in many ways.
Against Dallas, he came out firing early and never let up. When Bjelica is on, his range is limitless and he spaces the floor for the rest of his teammates. The Mavericks caught the Serbian sharpshooter in rare form.
The 31-year-old power forward knocked down a perfect 7-of-7 from the field in the first half, to help give his team a 20-point lead heading into the intermission. He continued to fire away during the second half, but he was much more than just a shooter, which Walton and his staff have been pushing for.
“He’s a heck of a ball player,” coach Luke Walton told media following the win. “We keep talking to him about how we view him as much more than just a space four-man. When he was younger in Europe, he played point guard for his club team. He’s got the skill, the passing ability and the shooting ability to really put the pressure on defenses.”
In addition to tying his career-high of 30 points, Bjelica added seven rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block in 34 minutes of play. He knocked down 13-of-18 from the field and 4-of-7 from long range and failed to register a turnover.
“We’re constantly encouraging him to be more aggressive and I thought tonight, he was aggressive and it helps when you’re knocking down those shots too,” Walton added.
After a tough overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, the Kings needed a team win. They almost let the game slip away, but Bjelica helped seal the deal in the waning seconds to come away with the first win of the road trip.
“We just need to play 48 minutes, we need to respect our opponents,” Bjelica added. “Everybody can play, everybody can score in this league.”
The peaks and valleys of this season has taken its toll on Kings. They’ve had to play without Bagley for nearly seven weeks and De’Aaron Fox has missed major time as well.
Players like Bjelica, Cory Joseph and Richaun Holmes have stepped up and kept the team competitive on most nights.
“This team is growing, we have a bright future, but we’re here to win the games,” Bjelica said. “We had a bad start to the season, but now we just have to play harder.”
With the victory over the Mavs, the Kings now sit at 9-13 on the season. Bagley is expected back in the next few days, which should bolster the front line and give Bjelica a bit of a break. While his role might change, Bjelica has earned a spot in the rotation with his strong play, whether that’s with the starters or off the bench.
The Final Play
With 4.4 seconds remaining in the fourth, Holmes ripped down a rebound and was instantly fouled by the Mavericks. It was the first foul in the final two minutes, which allowed the Kings to inbounds the ball and potentially kill the clock.
Bjelica set a screen for Harrison Barnes who broke for the midcourt line. Bjelica then slipped to the hoop while his defender jumped out to help on Barnes.
Bogdan Bogdanovic faked to Barnes and then fired a bullet to a wide open Bjelica standing under the basket.
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The Serbian connection worked. Bjelica went in for a two-handed jam to tie his career-high of 30 points. The bucket gave Sacramento a four-point lead with 3.4 seconds remaining and effectively ended the game.
If you’re going to have a career night, you might as well be the player who seals the win.