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Examining Nemanja Bjelica’s fit within the Warriors offense

Bjelica is a low-risk, high-reward flier who can slot in beautifully within Steve Kerr’s offense.

NBA: Preseason-Golden State Warriors at Sacramento Kings Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Nemanja Bjelica felt like an afterthought last season, mostly because... well, because he mostly was.

Averaging 6.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists on 45/32/73 shooting splits and 55% True Shooting is grounds for one’s stock to precipitously fall. Bjelica’s closing moments with the Sacramento Kings left a bitter taste; he played a mere 26 games with them, sidelined with a back injury but also falling out of favor with Kings head coach Luke Walton, resulting in him being completely removed from the rotation — even when healthy.

A trade-deadline deal sent Bjelica to the Miami Heat, and while his shooting metrics improved — in 11 regular-season games for the Heat, he shot 37% on threes — his impact on the Heat proved to be minimal, averaging approximately 14 minutes per game on 44/37/56 shooting splits.

It was then that, during the offseason, the Golden State Warriors decided to take a one-year flier on the 33-year-old Serbian, who is a career 38.7% shooter from beyond the arc and also happens to be 6-feet-10-inches tall.

Such attributes — floor-spacing excellence coupled with unteachable height — are scarce commodities in the league. While Bjelica obviously doesn’t belong in the same tier as the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns or Nikola Jokić in terms of ultra-versatile offensive bigs, Bjelica can serve as a cheaper-value doppelganger of what Towns and Jokić have provided throughout their careers, albeit at a much-lower usage rate.

That is, if Bjelica manages to return to his 2019-20 form, arguably the best season of his career. He put up pretty gaudy numbers on nearly 28 minutes per game: 11.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists, on shooting splits of 48/42/82 and 60.2% True Shooting. More importantly, he stayed healthy during that season, appearing in all of the Kings’ 72 games in what was ultimately a COVID-19-shortened regular season.

Assuming Bjelica displays more of his peak form rather than the subpar version that was prevalent last season, the possibilities of what he can contribute as an off-the-bench offensive boost are potentially endless.

The most glaringly obvious aspect of Bjelica’s offensive repertoire is his floor-stretching ability. He is not shy when it comes to pulling the trigger. His range can stretch far beyond 30 feet, with almost the same level of audacity as that of his new teammate, Stephen Curry. Most of Bjelica’s attempts during the 2019-20 season were of the catch-and-shoot variety, taking up 43.2% of his total three-point attempts, or nearly 4 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game, with a success rate of nearly 41% on such shots. He scored 1.257 points per spot-up possession, placing him in the 93rd percentile and ranking 7th among 133 players with at least 150 spot-up attempts, per Synergy.

Being considered a stretch-4 or occasional 5, the most concrete example of Bjelica’s ability to bury deep shots has come on pick-and-pops. Most of the time, there is no solid screen set; he “ghosts” the screen, proceeding to drift past the three-point line. This serves to punish pick-and-roll coverages that opt to hedge or trap ball-handlers, leaving him with plenty of space and time to perform his set shot.

The effectiveness of such a seemingly basic action is magnified when you consider the dearth of options defenses have in trying to stop Bjelica from getting off his shot. “Peel switch” a much shorter defender onto him, and that has little-to-no effect whatsoever. On the other hand, slow-footed bigs have little chance of getting there on time to bother his fairly quick release.

What further accentuates Bjelica’s nature as a pop threat off the screen is his ability to drill a long-range bomb from virtually any spot on the floor. During the 2019-20 season, he ranked in the 98th percentile in above-the-break threes, while he placed in the 78th percentile on corner threes, per Cleaning The Glass. The versatility of his shot-making from beyond the arc further illuminates his value as a floor-spreader, a luxury that Curry and the Warriors did not have last season.

Again, the possibilities of Bjelica being the Warriors’ latest toxin in pick-your-poison scenarios are endless. Have him screen for a nuclear weapon such as Curry, and defenses will most likely have to live with a potential Bjelica open shot. A probable second-unit pairing with lead ball-handlers such as Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole will not only further brandish his pick-and-pop skill, but will also allow him to complement Wiggins’ and Poole’s downhill rim attack as a semi-stationary kick-out target.

Such danger Bjelica presents as a floor spacer will only be magnified in transition situations, especially for a team that ranked 3rd in terms of possessions per game and 5th in fast-break points per game last season. The downhill gravity of dynamic wings like Wiggins and Poole and the universal gravity of Curry will serve to benefit Bjelica, who has previously shown the willingness to run the floor toward his sweet spots, ready to catch the ball and punish subpar transition defense.

While Bjelica’s ability to create off the bounce is limited as a whole, he is capable of creating advantage situations through the threat of his shot off the catch. Play initiation isn’t his strong suit, but he can initiate chaos simply by generating panic. Often realizing late that they have left a knockdown shooter open, defenders will scramble and turn on the jets, in a desperate bid to run Bjelica off the line.

Such attempts to run Bjelica off the line, while at times successful, allow him to display his understated ability to put the ball on the floor and put pressure on the rim. While he is by no means a prolific rim attacker (29th percentile in terms of rim-attempt frequency in 2019-20), nor is he a proficient one (14th percentile in terms of rim accuracy), it hasn’t discouraged him from blowing by hapless defenders and attempting higher-percentage paint shots.

Bjelica makes up for his glaring lack of burst and first-step explosion through timing and using defenders’ close-out momentum against them. Once the commitment to close out reaches a point of no return, athleticism, or lack thereof, becomes a moot factor, especially when he has a nifty floater to resort to when he gets within floater range, where he had a 47% success rate — 79th percentile among bigs during the 2019-20 season, per Cleaning The Glass.

The aforementioned lack of lead initiation — a byproduct of Bjelica’s lack of sustainable ball-handling and first-step explosion — isn’t going to garner him a high usage rate, nor will there be prolonged periods of time with the ball in his hands. He is far from being a lead-playmaking option, but what he can do is function as a highly capable play connector, one that could slot in quite seamlessly within the Warriors’ pass-heavy, perpetual-motion offense.

Bjelica has underrated vision and passing chops. He understands how to manipulate and bend defenses using his eyes, as well as leveraging the gravity of his downhill attacks to take advantage of weak-side/low-man help, finding open targets on the corners and wings and hitting them with precision.

Bjelica has no qualms with hitting cutters in space. His eyes are always darting around the court, looking for moving targets. Much like his kick-out passes, his passes to non-stationary teammates seem to always find their mark.

But the most telling evidence of Bjelica’s fit within Steve Kerr’s motion offense is his familiarity with its concepts. Walton — once a Kerr assistant — ran elements of his former boss’ offense with the Kings, most noticeably the Warriors’ bread-and-butter low-post split action. Bjelica is patient when the ball is fed to him in the low post, finding slip-screen cutters or hitting the moving shooter coming off the down-screen.

It’s tempting to envision Curry or Klay Thompson — or whoever is setting the down-screen — benefiting from Bjelica’s split-action passing.

Bjelica is even more familiar with a particular “modified” version of the split action the Warriors frequently used last season. The twist comes in the form of an initial down-screen for a weak-side mover, followed by a curl and dive cut. If the cut is denied, the second option is the traditional down-screen for a shooter in a typical split action.

Should there be no cutters or roving shooters available as targets, Bjelica occasionally resorts to classic low-post bully ball. He licks his chops when he has a mismatch against a smaller defender — often a result of cross-matching in transition or switches in the half-court.

It wasn’t a frequent component of Bjelica’s shot diet, nor was it generally an efficient play type for him — only 9.3% of his possessions consisted of post-ups in 2019-20, and he scored a pedestrian 0.808 points per post-up possession — but if he obtains deep post position against a disadvantaged defender, he is reliable enough to pound the rock inside and make full use of his length.

Based on the available evidence from previous seasons, it’s easy to conclude that Bjelica is a seamless addition to a Warriors offense that caters to his skill-set. The shooting adds a needed dynamic that was sorely lacking last season. Being a play connector and passing hub, as well as possessing the requisite basketball IQ that serves as the main currency of Kerr’s offense, will be a boost to an offense that was 20th in offensive rating last season, despite the presence of an all-time offensive great in Curry.

But assuming full health, will Bjelica command 28 minutes per night? Probably not, at least initially. A 15-20 minute stint off the bench is a reasonable estimate, during which he will have to prove that his disastrous 2020-21 form was a fluke. Defense is altogether another question; surviving within the Warriors’ switch-heavy scheme while guarding mobile 4s and behemoth 5s on occasion is a daunting task for someone as defensively nondescript as Bjelica.

But he is a low-risk, high-reward flier. His talents accentuate everything that makes the Warriors offense beautiful and exquisite. If he does flash the 2019-20 version that was representative of his full potential, the depth he provides off the bench will be paramount toward achieving a high playoff seed.

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