Nemanja Bjelica is more than a shooter, but Kings are begging him to shoot

Nemanja Bjelica is more than a shooter, but Kings are begging him to shoot

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.”

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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.

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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.

NBA admits LeBron James fouled Harrison Barnes on decisive Lakers-Kings play


NBA admits LeBron James fouled Harrison Barnes on decisive Lakers-Kings play

The Kings' 99-97 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night was too close for comfort. It also created a controversial call -- a call in which we recently received some clarity.

With 5.5 seconds remaining in the game, Harrison Barnes was called for blocking a foul against LeBron James. This allowed LeBron to sink a couple of free throws to get the Lakers to 99 points.

Barnes would later say contact was made but was waiting for the replay to decide.

The NBA Officiating Last Two Minute Report would confirm James did indeed foul Barnes with 5.5 seconds remaining. 

"James (LAL) extends his elbow into Barnes's (SAC) chin before any contact is initiated by Barnes on the perimeter," the report stated.

“Who initiated that, that’s for replays to decide," Barnes said after the game. " And they chose to call that a foul on me and that’s something you have to live with."

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Buddy Hield spoke to NBC Sports California's James Ham about the play and said it was a game-changer.

“One call changed the whole game, it could have gone either way,” Hield said. “It be like that sometimes. When the home team is favored, especially you know, in LA.”

In a game that close, he could be right.

Kings not happy with two questionable calls late in loss to Lakers

Kings not happy with two questionable calls late in loss to Lakers

Losing never feels good, but the Sacramento Kings were definitely not happy about the way things went Friday evening at the Staples Center. With the game on the line late, not one, but two plays went against Sacramento, and the Los Angeles Lakers came away with a 99-97 victory.

With 5.5 seconds remaining, Harrison Barnes was called for a blocking foul against LeBron James, which allowed the one of the game’s greats to step to the line and knock down a pair of free throws to give his club a 99-97 lead.

“Contact was made,” Barnes said. “Who initiated that, that’s for replays to decide. And they chose to call that a foul on me and that’s something you have to live with.”

At least one Kings player was willing to voice his displeasure at the chain of events following the loss.

“One call changed the whole game, it could have gone either way,” an angry Buddy Hield said. “It be like that sometimes. When the home team is favored, especially you know, in LA.”

The replay is difficult to parse out and is up for interpretation. It was clear that Barnes made a move on the ball, but it was also obvious that James made contact with the defender and cleared space.

“Sometimes you have to let the situation play out,” Hield said. “I don’t think it was a foul. It was the other way. Ask Rodney what he thinks.”

By “ask Rodney,” Hield was referring to official Rodney Mott, who called the game along with Sean Wright and Natalie Sago.

Sacramento had another opportunity to either tie or go ahead in the final moments, but this time, the officiating crew allowed the players to continue after contact.

Barnes took an inbounds pass, saw an opening and broke for the basket. It appeared that while trying to recover defensively, James clipped the back of Barnes right heel, which knocked him off balance and sent him careening towards the key.

Barnes continued to stumble towards the basket where he was met by All-Star center Anthony Davis in the lane. The 6-foot-11 big managed to absorb contact from Barnes and swat a last-second shot attempt away to preserve the Lakers win.

It turns out that Barnes going to the paint was the Lakers gameplan all along.

“The one thing we wanted to do was force them inside the 3-point line,” James told reporters following the game. “A two doesn’t hurt us. They make a two, we call a timeout, see if we can win the game, if not go into overtime. We played it to perfection making them go inside the line and then when you have a shot blocker with the caliber of AD protecting the rim, it just made it a lot tougher on Harrison.”

While James saw perfection, the Kings saw an offensive foul or no-call, followed by a second no-call. They’ll point to a disparity in free throw attempts on the evening, where they went 9-of-9 from the line, including seven attempts in the fourth quarter, while the Lakers finished 20-for-22.

“It’s always the referee’s decision to call or not call (a foul),” Bogdan Bogdanovic said. “Sometimes you get calls, sometimes not. Homecourt advantage maybe? Sometimes it goes like that, you know? But it’s over, we lost this game and we have to be locked in for Boston.”

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Sacramento will wait anxiously for the league’s Last Two Minute report to drop on Saturday afternoon, although the officials report has zero value when it comes to wins and losses. The league may admit a mistake or two, but there is no recourse. They could also side with the officiating crew at the arena.

A loss is a loss, but the Kings played solid ball against the best the Western Conference has to offer. They played short-handed with De’Aaron Fox (left ankle), Marvin Bagley (right thumb) and Trevor Ariza (right groin) missing the game and they still managed to keep it close with a chance to win late.