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By Mike Max

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When Jimmy Butler went down in late February, the Minnesota Timberwolves had to step up.

Nemanja Bjelica was the first call to step in as a starter.

“It’s very important for me, you know, because it’s hard to replace, you know, Jimmy’s quality, and his individual … ability, what he can do,” Bjelica said.

They have been patiently waiting for “Belly” to find his rhythm. He was drafted from Serbia in 2010, and finally signed with the team in 2015 — which meant he got a season of seasoning with Kevin Garnett. He started playing significantly in 2018.

nemanja bjelica Belly Sticking Out On Wolves Offense In Butlers Absence

Nemanja Bjelica (credit: CBS)

“He’s handled it well,” said Wolves Coach Tom Thibodeau. “Whether you start him or bring him off the bench, you know, he’s playing extended minutes. I think he started off the season, played very well, and then he got hurt. And now he’s back to playing at a very high level again, so it’s good.”

So he tries to become a factor. Six-feet-10-inches tall and agile, he learned his path to the NBA was conditional on one thing.

“Shoot whenever you think that you are ready, and whenever you think that you are open,” Bjelica said.

What he hopes is that leads to is what this team last experienced when he was just a 15 year old in Serbia: A long-awaited return to the playoffs.

“Hopefully, you know, this will also be my first year to play in playoffs, and I don’t know, we’ll see,” he said. “Everybody is saying the playoffs is totally different when you compare with regular season, so I’m excited like everybody here and everybody in the city, of course.”


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