SACRAMENTO -- Unassuming. That might be the best way to describe 6-foot-10 forward Nemanja Bjelica.
Like his fellow countryman, Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Serbian big takes his time getting back to his locker stall following games. If you wait long enough, Bjelica usually appears and is willing to chat, but he doesn’t seek out the attention.
Following Sacramento’s win over the Washington Wizards on Friday night at Golden 1 Center, a few more people than usual wanted to chat with the Kings’ starting power forward. He spoke but preferred to focus on the team.
“I’ve got an opportunity here in Sacramento,” Bjelica said. “I don’t want to talk about myself. It was a great victory in front of our fans, and it’s a great feeling to be at 3-3.”
There is a little bit to unpack in that statement. After spending three seasons in Minnesota standing in the corner and waiting for a pass that wasn’t coming, Bjelica is part of the game plan with the Kings.
He’s quickly showing that he is much more than just a shooter. He can rebound, block shots and pass the ball, and he always seems to be in the exact right spot. He has an opportunity, and he is trying to take full advantage of it.
“All my life and all my career, I was underrated, but I don’t have a problem with that,” Bjelica said. “I just love the game of basketball, and I worked really hard to be here today.”
Moving to the NBA is a difficult transition for a lot of European players. Bjelica was dominant overseas. After winning the EuroLeague MVP in 2015 while playing for Fenerbahçe Ülker, he signed a three-year deal with the Timberwolves.
His game didn’t instantly translate to the NBA. During his final season in Minnesota, he split time between the power and small forward positions, with most of his minutes at the three coming alongside big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
With Sacramento, he’s played almost all of his minutes as a stretch four, which is creating optimal spacing on the floor for the Kings.
“He just opens up everything,” De’Aaron Fox said after the game. “I told him, European guys always want to make the right play. Sometimes he doesn’t shoot it -- I told him, shoot the ball. That’s why we brought him here. You shoot over 40 percent from three -- let it go.”
Bjelica bombed away against the Wizards, scoring a team-high 26 points on 6-of-10 shooting from behind the 3-point line. He added 12 rebounds for his second consecutive double-double.
“We just asked him, don’t pass up any more shots,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. "We need you to shoot the ball over the top of their defense against their switching and smaller guys, and that opens up a lot of other things for us. He did a terrific job on that."
Bogdanovic went through a similar transformation last season with Sacramento. It was clear early on that he was holding back. He was playing hard on both ends of the court, but his focus on helping his teammates came at a detriment to his own success.
It’s a difficult transition, but Bjelica and Bogdanovic are learning that for the team to succeed, they need to be more selfish as players. The coaching staff and their teammates aren’t asking for the pair to play outside of their comfort zone but to do more of what they do best.
“I like to shoot the ball, but I skip some open shots, when I see someone who’s open, I will always play that ball to him,” Bjelica said.
There is a balance that can happen. After drilling his sixth 3-pointer to give the Kings a 106-101 lead at the 3:12 mark of the fourth, the ball came back to Bjelica moments later. He lined up a shot but instead hit Buddy Hield slashing to the hoop for an open layup that gave the Kings a seven-point lead.
It appears that GM Vlade Divac has struck paydirt with both of his Serbian additions. Bogdanovic’s rights were acquired as a throw-in on the 2016 draft day deal that sent the Kings’ ninth overall selection to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for the 13th and 28th picks.
Over the summer, Bjelica backed out of a one-year commitment to join the 76ers and was heading overseas to resume a career in the EuroLeague. A phone call from Divac landed the 30-year-old in Sacramento on a three-year, $20.5 million deal.
Bjelica is averaging 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and three assists in 26.3 minutes per game through six. He’s shooting an incredible 60.8 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from long range, and has a true shooting percentage of 73.7.
More important than the numbers, Bjelica is part of a young Kings team that is playing hard and winning games.