The Minnesota Timberwolves have many pieces but it looks like Nemanja Bjelica might be one of the most important.
If you look up and down the rosters of the Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs, you see a lot of star power. Even without their two most important players in Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, the Spurs are still a scary looking team to play against. The Timberwolves obviously have the stars of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, plus the well-known names of Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague. The point is that when looking at the names of the players who played on Wednesday night, Nemanja Bjelica might not be the name that jumps out at you at being one of the most important. That is changing.
In Wednesday night’s game full of stars, there was only one player that had a plus-minus in the positive double-digits. Bjelica had a plus-minus of +15 on Wednesday night on a night where he scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished out two assists and made one heck of a block. The next closest in the plus-minus category on Wednesday night was a trio of Wolves at +7 (Shabazz Muhammad, Gibson and Teague).
It is not like this the outlier of the season. Bjelica has been doing this all season. In fact, going into Wednesday’s nights games, Bjelica was leading the team in ESPN’s real plus-minus stat. ESPN’s real plus-minus adjusts the formula to try to make the stat more true to the league as a whole so it is easier to compare players on a Golden State Warriors team that scores a lot and a Chicago Bulls team that doesn’t score too much, for example.
Going into Wednesday, Bjelica was ranked 35th in the league with a real plus-minus of 2.10. To put it in context, the leader in the league is James Harden of the Houston Rockets at 8.21 but it drops off quick to already being at 3.95 for the 7th ranked Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors.
The next person on the list for the Timberwolves is Towns and he finds himself 41st on the list with a real plus-minus of 1.93.
This isn’t to say that Bjelica is the secret star to the Timberwolves, but he sure seems to be the secret sauce to their success. The Timberwolves outplayed the Spurs amazingly in the second quarter on Wednesday. The bench, power by the presence of Bjelica, helped the Wolves to outscore the Spurs 39-19 in the second frame.
This is finally the Bjelica that the Wolves thought they were getting right away. He is starting to drive and finish when he does which is something he thrived at before coming to the NBA. The shooting stroke is also coming alive with him hitting at least one three-pointer in all except two games so far this season. His defense is mediocre, but a three-legged stool can play defense better than just about anyone not named Butler or Gibson on this Timberwolves team.
Bjelica has only scored in double-digits four times this season but has been a key part of every success the Wolves have found this season. Bjelica was a +17 this past Saturday in the disappointing loss to the Phoenix Suns which basically boils it down to the Wolves losing despite Bjelica. It’s really hard for a team to lose and have a player have that high of a plus-minus number.
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Butler, Towns and Wiggins are going to get all the headlines. They are the household names and they are the ones that are going to make the flashy plays that make SportsCenter on the rare occasion SportsCenter decides to show an actual highlight. That means Bjelica is going to go unnoticed by a lot of people.
Timberwolves fans shouldn’t allow him to go unnoticed. His success is integral to the success of the bench unit and the team as a whole. Some might sleep on 29-year-old from Serbia, but NBA coaches better not. If they do, they’ll be seeing stars.
Bjelica and the Wolves are back in action on Friday night against the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas. Tip from Texas is set for 7:30 central.