Nemanja Bjelica was on his way back to Europe when he got the call from fellow Serbians Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic last summer. After three seasons in Minnesota, the sharpshooting big joined the Kings on a three-year, $20.5 million contract and instantly stepped into Sacramento’s starting lineup.
While he struggled for a stretch in the middle of the season, Bjelica became a valuable member of the rotation and posted career-high numbers across the board for the Kings.
His ability to create space and spread the floor opened up the Kings’ offense. His high basketball IQ made the players around him better.
Bjelica’s role is likely to change dramatically in Year No. 2 in Sacramento, but his ability to hit the 3-ball and impact the game in multiple ways will earn him minutes during the season.
Before a midseason slump, Bjelica was one of the Kings’ most efficient players. He started 70 games for Dave Joerger at power forward and he figured out ways to impact the game on a nightly basis.
Through the first two months of the season, Bjelica knocked down 51.5 percent (35-for-68) from 3-point range. He finished the season at 40.1 percent from long distance on 257 attempts, providing some much needed spacing from an unlikely spot on the floor.
Bjelica was particularly deadly from the top of the key as a trailer in the Kings’ uptempo offense. As the season wore on, he continued to attempt shots from further and further out, which hurt his 3-point percentage, but allowed gaps for De’Aaron Fox to work with.
Not known as a leaper, Bjelica is crafty around the rim, hitting 63.5 percent on 189 attempts inside of three feet. He also was efficient from three to 10 feet, knocking down 52-for-118 for 44.1 percent. Bjelica took just 29 shots from 10 feet out to the 3-point line, showing nice shot discipline. On the offensive side of the ball, he knows who he is and plays to his strengths.
Despite limited athleticism, Bjelica averaged 5.8 rebounds in 23.2 minutes per. His 12.8 percent rebound percentage was fifth on the Kings last season and his per-36-minute average of 8.9 isn’t bad for a player who plays heavy minutes away from the rim.
Bjelica is a smart player who rarely gets out position. His opponents ran a -1.6 field goal percentage against, including a -5.3 percent from behind the 3-point line. He also blocked 0.7 shots per game, which ranked second on the team last season.
Bjelica is who he is, which is a solid NBA stretch four. While he is an intelligent player, he lacks elite athleticism and quickness, which limits his ability to play multiple positions.
The rigors of an 82-game schedule appeared to wear down Bjelica, especially with the pace the Kings play at. He needs to come into camp in great shape and ready to run, even if it’s as a trailer in the uptempo offense.
While he’s passable on the boards, second-year big man Marvin Bagley projects as a very good to excellent rebounder at the same position. With starting center Dewayne Dedmon more of a perimeter player, it’s unlikely the two play minutes together.
On the defensive side of the ball, Bjelica is more of a stretch four/five than a three/four. His inability to guard small forwards will hurt him when Luke Walton goes to switching defenses.
Path to Improvement
It’s possible that playing deep into the summer with the Serbian national team will help the 31-year-old come into camp in prime shape. With the pace the Kings play at, it’s a must for everyone on the roster, but specifically for a player like Bjelica, who plays a different speed than most of his teammates.
There is a very good chance that Bjelica will see reduced minutes, which might be a good thing. If he can continue to be extremely effective in a reserve role, he can carve out a niche as a floor spacer alongside young bigs like Harry Giles and Richaun Holmes.
Bjelica was a quiet difference-maker for the Kings during the 2018-19 season, but he might get lost in the shuffle in head coach Luke Walton’s uptempo offense.
Bagley is going to play 30-plus minutes per game at the power forward spot. Harrison Barnes will steal minutes at the four as well. Bjelica’s shooting is an elite skill that will keep him in the rotation, but he’s in a dog fight for minutes.
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Walton is going to need a floor spacer to play alongside Giles and Holmes, but as the season develops, he might have other options.
A conservative projection has Bjelica averaging 5.5-6.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and an assist in 12-14 minutes per game off the Kings’ bench. He’ll shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range, but it’s likely he’ll lose minutes to more versatile players.