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NBA champion Bjelica preparing to retire

Injuries are pushing the backup center from Golden State’s 2022 championship team into retirement

Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors - Game Five
Nemanja Bjelica breaks Luka Doncic’s ankles in the 2022 playoffs
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Nemanja Bjelica’s career with the Golden State Warriors was brief but spectacular. Signed to a minimum contract before the 2021-22 season, Bjelica was a revelation as a passer and defender, helping the Warriors to the NBA title. He returned to his old team, Fenerbache, after the season, but played only seven games after suffering an injury playing for the Serbian national team. Now it appears that injuries are ending Bjelica’s illustrious career.

An unconfirmed report from Sportando says that Bjelica, who signed with Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade this summer, has a calf injury that has left him contemplating retirement. If this is indeed the end, Bjelica retires with 3.412 points in seven NBA seasons, and some nice shooting splits for a big man - 46.6% from the field, 38.4% from three-point range, and 75.9% from the free-throw line. Plus, a bunch of absolute dimes during the 2021-22 season.

It’s not entirely clear that the Warriors anticipated this level of razzle-dazzle from their backup center, but Bjelica truly thrived playing in the Warriors’ offensive system. Halfway through the year, he told reporters that playing for Golden State “has even exceeded my expectations. I don’t know if I could find a better place for me.”

While occasionally Bjelica got a little too confident in his ball-handling, his basketball smarts and soft touch on his passes were amazing for the second unit. Last year, the team clearly missed having a center who could make 36% of his three-pointers, as well as practice the dark arts of subtle moving screens, a Warriors hallmark.

But the underrated part of Bjelica’s game was his defense. While he may have looked slow and didn’t block many shots, Bjelica was excellent at deterring shots in the paint, as well as getting steals (1.8 per 100 possessions in 2021-22). He even locked down Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals - Tatum was 0-5 with four turnovers when matched up against Bjelica.

Bjelica first showed his talent as a 20-year-old with Crvena zvezda in Serbia, shooting well in the EuroCup. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Bjelica on draft night, after he was selected at No. 35, but he went to Saski Baskonia in the Spain for three years instead. In 2013, he went to play for Fenerbache, in order to play under legendary coach Željko Obradović, considered the greatest European basketball coach of all-time.

Under Obradović, Bejlica became a star, leading Fenerbache to their first-ever EuroLeague Final Four and winning the EuroLeague MVP award. In 2014, he and the Serbian team won a silver medal at the FIBA World Cup, losing in the final to Team USA.

Bjelica’s NBA career began in 2015 with the Timberwolves, where he spent his first three seasons. He almost signed with the Philadelphia 76ers before backing out the deal in order to return to Europe, only to reverse himself as Vlade Divac convinced him to sign with the Sacramento Kings instead. There, he had the best season of his career in 2019-20, averaging 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds and shooting 41.9% from three (Klay Thompson thinks it would have been a lot cooler if he’d gotten that up to 42.0%). He also had multiple game-winning shots.

After Divac left, Bjelica lost his starting spot to Marvin Bagley and was later traded to the Miami Heat, who buried him on the bench. We think he was making Duncan Robinson nervous as a rival sweet-shooting big lanky white guy. But his career was revived in San Francisco, putting a nice bow - and a ring- on his NBA career.

Even if his return to Europe was disappointing and hamstrung by injuries, Bjelica will always be a legend for Warriors fans. He received his championship ring at a youth basketball camp this summer, but here’s hoping the team brings him back to get one more ovation from the Chase Center crowd, now that he has a lot of free time.

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