Wolves' Bjelica has gone from a miss to a hit
MINNEAPOLIS — It was fair to question Nemanja Bjelica's 3-point shooting capabilities last season. The versatile forward shot a measly 32 percent from deep and looked more interested in driving and play-making than putting up another long jumper.
Was Bjelica even a threat from deep? Was he an option to spread the floor?
Eleven games into the season, those questions have been answered. Bjelica leads the NBA in 3-point shooting, hitting 59 percent of his long-range attempts (16 for 27). He's shooting 60 percent from the field.
"I'm in a good rhythm, and coach (Tom Thibodeau) wants me to shoot the ball as much as I can," he said.
The latter part might be the key. Thibodeau and his staff have implored Bjelica to shoot.
Last season, 49 percent of Bjelica's shots were from 3-point range. That number has spiked to 57 percent this season. His true shooting percentage — an efficiency number that factors in 2-pointers, free-throws and the added value of 3-pointers — is a jaw-dropping .798.
For reference, Karl-Anthony Towns has the team's second-best true shooting percentage at .639.
Often receiving the ball on the perimeter, Bjelica catches with three options — drive, pass or shoot. Too often in the past, he would put the ball on the deck without thinking.
"Sometimes I wanted to do so much and when I turn over the ball, Thibs is mad," Bjelica said with a smile.
Thibodeau wanted that to change.
"The game tells you what to do, and I think it's important for him to think shot first," Thibodeau said. "Then (it depends) on how they're closing to him. If they're closing hard, put (the ball) down; if they're closing short, shoot it. Knowing when to shoot and when to pass is important for everyone."
Thibodeau thinks Bjelica has gotten more comfortable. In his third NBA season, the game is slowing down for the Serbian who was named EuroLeague MVP in 2015.
"I think he's making really good decisions," Thibodeau said. "He's putting it on the floor when he should, he's shooting it when he should, he makes plays for others. I think that's important."
Part of the challenge for Bjelica has been to change the way he plays. In Europe, he was a playmaker who could also shoot. In Minnesota, he's expected to be a stretch-four focused on widening the defense with his outside shot. He's had to fight the instinct to dribble and create for others.
"I totally change my way how I play basketball," Bjelica said.
"I always have that (outside) range, but sometimes I want to put the ball on the floor, and that was my problem last year," he said. "But I know what they want from me and what I'm doing here. The great thing is that we are winning the games, so it's even better for everybody."
Bjelica's impact spreads beyond his shooting. Box plus/minus is an advanced stat that measures the average points per 100 possessions a player averages above a league-average player. Bjelica's BPM is 3.7, a team best. And, statistically, Minnesota's defense has been at its best this season when Bjelica is on the court.
"I'm shooting the ball well, but the season is long," Bjelica said. "There are some games when you're just going to miss shots, but it's normal. You're a human being. So, when things go wrong, you have to do something different to help the team, defense or whatever."
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