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Nemanja Bjelica’s skills need to shine off the bench

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Assuming a move to the bench, Bjelica holds a critical role

Kimani Okearah

No one could’ve predicted the blistering beginning to Nemanja Bjelica’s tenure as a Sacramento King. October treated Bjelica unquestionably well as the Serbian averaged 15.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks on 58.2 percent shooting from the field and a whopping 54.5 percent from three on 4.1 attempts in 27.6 minutes a game.

Additionally, when the Kings won those games early in the season, Bjelica typically inserted himself as a critical reason to the victory. When the Kings lost, his performance took a drastic hit and I labeled it The Nemanja Bjelica Effect. With the scorching shooting came good floor spacing as well as some solid defensive play, so you could see why Dave Joerger opted to start Bjelica for a longer period of time than Marvin Bagley III, but that’s a debate we’re moved on from.

This season, the roles look to be reversed between the two options at power forward. Bagley seems ready to grasp the mantle as a starter and Bjelica will be utilized as a key stretch four off the bench.

Bjelica’s Monthly Shooting

Month Three Pointers Made Three Pointers Attempted Percentage
Month Three Pointers Made Three Pointers Attempted Percentage
October 2.3 4.1 54.5
November 1.3 2.7 48.6
December 1.5 3.9 37.3
January 1.1 3.1 36.4
February 1.3 3.3 39.1
March 0.9 3 31.1
April 1.4 3.6 38.9
NBA.com stats

Bjelica’s best skill is that he can shoot it from Serbia and posted a 40.1 three point percentage to cap off the year, and that raised to 43 percent when he shot between 25-29 feet.

Compared to last season’s big men, no one approached Bjelica’s ability to let it fly except for Bagley, who became a better shooting big towards the season’s close but on a much smaller sample. Dewayne Dedmon will be joining the squad but for now he’s an assumptive starter. Richaun Holmes shot 35 percent from three back in 2016-17 (1.4 attempts), but abandoned his development from deep as he attempted zero threes in 2018-19. Harry Giles has been working on improving his range in the summer so we’ll see how that translates come October.

Until we see consistent three point development with Giles, Bjelica holds a valuable trait as a reserve floor spacing big.

As far as bench depth goes, the Kings are situated satisfyingly across the chart and that bodes well for Bjelica’s ability to fit into multiple lineups. He’s fully capable of playing with the starting five but coming off the bench allows him to play with Bogdan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza along with Giles and Holmes.

The 6’10” big man excelled at hitting trailing threes while receiving these passes from a variety of players whether it was a playmaking guard in Bogdanovic or another big like Willie Cauley-Stein handing the ball off.

It’s the simplest way to fill his ammo clip as his quick shooting release doesn’t succumb to defensive contests easily. He’s also the best shooting reserve from beyond the arc and that’ll get the playmaking juices of passers around him flowing. If the Kings find themselves in a situation where they need a scoring spark with both Bagley and Dedmon struggling, they’ll have no problem bringing in Bjelica to lift the energy.

Belly proved to be an effective roll big, scoring 1.288 points per possession (52 poss.) placing him in the 84th percentile, per Synergy. Not only that, but his proficiency from deep permitted him to threaten defenses with pick-and-pop plays that came to Sacramento’s benefit last season.

With the unique angle in the clip above (which I actually like to dissect this), you can see how Portland isn’t trying to stop Fox. They’re letting him go right and once Fox gets past his initial defender, he lures Belly’s defender over and his man doesn’t switch onto Bjelica. Harrison Barnes’ defender also starts to slide over but Fox makes the easier read to pop it out for a three and if the Kings couldn’t get Bjelica as a trailer, this route also tended to aid his shot.

Bogdanovic should be able to exceed last year’s chemistry with Bjelica (15 assists) with more time playing together off the bench and they did have some moments on both trailers and PnP’s. Cory Joseph struggled as a ball handling distributor on pick-and-rolls but he didn’t have any stellar roll bigs to work with. However, Sacramento has better options coming in which is something to keep an eye on.

One primary knock that surfaced in Bjelica’s shooting was his tendency to opt out of a three and drive in for a layup. It’s one thing to drive in if there’s a reasonable shot contest, but Bjelica had open looks that he simply passed up on.

Buddy Hield gives Bjelica a solid look here and it’s an attempt he usually would and should take. Instead, he drives it in and Brook Lopez, who is a tremendous rim protector, halted any chance Belly had at finishing.

The probability of the 31-year-old trending upwards doesn’t seem too high despite his seasonal numbers increasing every year. The Kings will need Bjelica to be effective both in taking shots he is capable of hitting, including the ones he pump faked out of last year. The bench will definitely profit off that three point percentage he has.

Defensively, Bjelica doesn’t standout in one particular area nor does he get exploited often. He surely can hold his own despite not being extremely athletic both vertically and with lateral movements.

He won’t bring a strong rebounding presence in a bench role but he’s certainly capable of assisting in that department as he had 11 games last season where he grabbed at least 10 rebounds.

Being smart really helped him side some flaws on defense. If he couldn’t use his feet to stay in front of quicker players, he’d utilize his body strength to get into them and slow them down leading to players passing out or taking tough shots.

He also demonstrated good usage of his hands in certain situations like the one above. If a pass materialized in his vicinity, he would stick his hand in the cookie jar and sometimes find one. Some players would let Mike Conley make that overhead pass and go from there, but he throws his hands up and deflects it. Even if his hands don’t make contact with the ball, the effort is there.

Bjelica fails to stay in front of Jalen Brunson fairly quickly but sticks his body and arm in his path, knocking the ball and creating a fastbreak bucket off the turnover. Bjelica was also a plus in the defensive box plus/minus category, with a rating of 1.2, the third best mark on the team (min. 30 games).

Just being a smart, self-aware defender will be convenient for the Kings because Bjelica won’t be a liability when he steps onto the court and he can gain some extra possessions.

It’ll be handy for Sacramento have Bjelica be in a bench role that won’t require him to play abundant minutes. Come in the game and do what you do best - hit threes from Serbia and provide a smart defensive presence. He won’t be a game changing piece, but a quality rotational player and that’s all he needs to be.