Once a prospect, now an accomplished (power) forward, Nemanja Bjelica will join forces with Nikola Jokic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Boban Marjanovic and the latest addition to the Serbian company in the NBA, Marco Guduric, in order to bring another medal to Belgrade.
Claiming chinese gold at the forthcoming FIBA World Cup will be by no means easy, but the 31-year-old Sacramento Kings player seems fit for the task, especially considering his impressive performance in the “final” of the Acropolis tournament at OAKA in Athens. Against the host team, the 2015 Euroleague MVP registered 18 points and 14 rebounds in 31 minutes, including some crucial daggers that allowed Serbia to clinch first place vs the Antetokounmpo bros (Giannis and Thanasis), who combined for a total of 37 points and 7 steals.
Bjelica is coming from his best season -by far- in the NBA, his first with the Sacramento Kings of Serbian GM and basketball legend Vlade Divac. In fact, last year he amassed more games as a starter than in all of his three previous seasons combined, not to mention a highly commendable rise in the the stats department.
TalkBasket.net had the chance to discuss with him in Athens and Nemanja took some time to answer, before joining friends and relatives who had been waiting for him outside the Serbian locker-room.
Q: How are things for Serbia right now?
A: We are feeling well, but still not playing the way we want. It’s quite early and we have three more weeks before the World Cup begins. We’re going to be fine when the time comes.
Q: What is there to improve and correct?
A: First, we need to respect each other more. I mean to respect the way we play. We have so many good players and therefore we should play more as a team. It’s normal because we’ve been together for ten days. We need to communicate more, but I think we’ll be fine. The important thing is to stay healthy. So far, we have lost Dragan Milosavljevic and we still don’t know if Milos Teodosic will come with us.
Q: Is it difficult to mix up well in the Serbian team, since you have many “star-players”?
A: When the time comes we’ll find the way to play together. We’re rooting for each other, we’ve been playing together for many years and we’ve got a great coach.
Q: What’s the competition in the World Cup?
A: It’s strong. I expect everything. I don’t want to be surprised because many players are out in Team USA. They’re still the No.1 team. There’s also Spain, France, Australia, Greece … so many good teams that will fight for a medal, even if they won’t admit it. We are close, but we still need some more time.
Q: How is it for you to return to the National Team in a major competition after four years?
A: It was tough for me seeing the other guys playing and winning two silver medals in a row. I like to play for the National Team. Finally, I’m healthy and I can enjoy playing with them, having fun. I can’t wait for the tournament to start.
Q: What’s your feeling concerning your presence in the NBA?
A: I’ve been there for the last four years. I have found my role, I feel great at Sacramento. Our guys treat me well, we have a young team and one day we will fight for the championship.
Q: Judging only by your numbers, one can tell that you’re improving: more games, playing time, points scored, rebounds grabbed etc. Is it so?
A: Yes. Sometimes I need to play more with the ball in my hands, but it’s hard to do that in the NBA. I got there kind of late, but it’s OK. I’m satisfied.
Q: Any thoughts of returning to Europe in the near or distant future?
A: I don’t know. I want to finish my career in the NBA, but you never know. I belong to the NBA and I want to stay there.
Q: How is it that many Serbian players, like yourself, Bogdanovic and now Guduric go directly from Fenerbahce to the NBA? Is it simply a coincidence?
A: No, we’re good players and we have a great coach in Zeljko Obradovic. Fenerbahce is a great team for the development of a player, for winning championships and also for showing and elevating your talent to another level.
Q: Do you watch the Euroleague?
A: Yes, whenever I have time. I’m rooting for both Red Star and Fener, my ex-teams. I’m happy when they win.
Q: For Baskonia as well?
A: Yeah, Baskonia! I forgot about them (laughs)!
Q: Do you think that the presence of players like yourself and Nikola Jokic in the NBA is a proof that basketball fundamentals can be equally or more important than athletic ability?
A: Yes. It’s good for world basketball because the way we play is also a part of our talent.