July 23, 2018, 4:43 am
It took almost three weeks for the Kings to make a move in free agency, but Vlade Divac and the team’s front office suddenly sprung into action on July 20, securing guard Yogi Ferrell and forward Nemanja Bjelica on multi-year contracts. Ferrell’s fit with the Kings is seemingly perfect. He’ll slot right in as the backup point guard and will help with the team’s up-tempo aspirations. Bjelica’s fit, however, is a little more questionable.
At 6-foot-10 he’s naturally a power forward, who can stretch the floor – that’s where he’s played for most of his career. However, last season Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau asked him to play small forward, almost exclusively, when All-Star Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury. Despite his uptick in minutes at the three, many are still skeptical of the Kings’ plans to reportedly deploy him there next season. There’s no denying he’s a fantastic outside shooter, hitting a career-high 41.5 percent of his 3-point attempts last season, but his ability to defend more athletic wings is still a major question mark.
Kevin Brand of Hoop Ball Wolves shared his insight on Bjelica’s fit with the Kings, how he’ll manage being deployed as a small forward and what he’ll bring defensively.
Q: Is the three-year, $20.5 million deal the Kings gave Bjelica an overpay? Or do you believe that’s fair value?
A: In this offseason? Perhaps. I believe in a fair market (for the players) this is about the right value, though. Even looking forward his contract could become a real solid asset on the trade market with that third year being non-guaranteed. He’s a solid fit for many teams and while the window for his services may not perfectly align with the Kings’ competitive window, I think there’s a good chance he gives them a net-positive return on investment.
Q: Bjelica is predominately known as a power forward, but Butler’s injury opened up minutes for him at small forward last season. How did he perform on both sides of the ball and do you think he could play there full-time?
A: Bjelica’s offensive game aligns better as a stretch-four, where he can catch-and-shoot beyond the arc, initiate some offense or move without the ball. He doesn’t have much of a post-up game (you can count on two hands and a foot how many post-ups Bjelica had last season) and isn’t a slasher that will finish through contact. Defensively he showed he is actually fairly versatile, though, and can guard both forward positions.
There was a five-game stretch that sticks out to me when he was stepping in for Butler. It was by far the toughest portion of the Wolves’ schedule. He went up against Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, Otto Porter Jr., Danny Green and Trevor Ariza in consecutive games, and held each player below their scoring averages while averaging 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.5 3-pointers per game in his own right.
Bjelica doesn’t have the athleticism to match any of these players, but he has surprisingly quick reaction speed and enough length that made even Durant second-guess pulling the trigger. He’s a smart defender that not only understands team defense but enjoys it.
Could he be deployed as a small forward full-time? Probably not. A five-game sample is too small to draw definitive conclusions; there would be too many holes for his teammates to cover and inconsistency has always plagued his game. In short spurts with the right matchups, it’s definitely plausible, though. He does a better job of blending in and preventing mistakes than taking command and making something happen. It could be trouble if he’s asked to clean up his teammates’ mistakes every night.
Q: What’s his defense like at both forward spots?
A: As a power forward, Bjelica is comfortable defending on the block as he doesn’t shy away from contact. He’s not a real threat for weak-side help or rim protection but is a mediocre one-on-one defender than can guard out to the 3-point line and won’t totally kill you.
As a small forward he is prone to getting beat off the dribble but recovers moderately well thanks to his length. He’s not a big gambler on defense and stays within himself, knowing it’s just not part of his skill set. He’s adept at fighting through screens (again, not afraid of contact) and navigating traffic.
He’s also a very solid pick-and-roll defender both on the ball and as the help.
Bjelica is most suitable guarding power forwards but can theoretically switch onto wings. If he’s deployed next to a solid rim protector or big body, Bjelica can certainly carry his weight away from the basket. It’s possible to even envision him as a small-ball five if the matchups dictate it, although he’s never done that in his NBA career to this point. By no means is he a lock-down defender, but he’s not a total loss on that end and the mistakes aren’t a consistent occurrence. He’ll spot something he does wrong in a game and try to fix that as soon as possible.
Q: Do you think he’ll be a valuable addition to the Kings considering their current rebuilding situation and the other players on the roster?
A: The fit is a little bit odd with the current glut of big men, but he does provide a different skill set at the power forward position than what they already have. He’s also an actual option to deploy at small forward in a pinch.
Assuming Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles are the future, having someone around like Kosta Koufos becomes quite important to clean up the mistakes. A big rotation of those three and Bjelica makes some sense. Zach Randolph doesn’t really fit into any picture, Willie Cauley-Stein would ideally be a good fit but seems to be caught in an identity crisis and Skal Labissiere is Bjelica with some upside but far less polish.
If Bjelica steps into Randolph’s minutes, whether it’s off the bench or starting, that would be a pretty solid boost for the Kings on both sides of the ball. He is not a ball-stopper offensively (sometimes to a fault) and could stretch the floor for De’Aaron Fox while getting more shots to Bogdan Bogdanovic and/or Buddy Hield.
How they decide to shake out the rotation is anyone’s guess, but from an outsider’s perspective, Bjelica’s presence makes Randolph and Cauley-Stein expendable if they’re willing to go all-in on the Duke duo from the get-go. Otherwise it feels like the 30-year old would be merely blocking potential on-court development time.
At the very least Bjelica will offer a well-rounded game (albeit with some inconsistency) and a terrific locker-room presence. Beli was a fan-favorite in the Minneapolis community and while many were sad to see him go, they were at the same time pleased he was able to break free of Tom Thibodeau’s clutches and hopefully blossom elsewhere.
Hopefully, he finds success with the Kings, he has many people rooting for him from afar.