The Warriors were at their best in their season-opening win over the Los Angeles Lakers when Nemanja Bjelica was on the floor.
Bjelica, not Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, LeBron James or Anthony Davis, recorded the highest +/- of the game. In a game the Warriors won 121-114, Golden State outscored the Lakers by 20 points when the stretch-five was in the lineup.
“He’s a huge reason we pulled this game out today,” Draymond said postgame. “Plus-20? That’s incredible.”
With 15 points and 11 rebounds, Bjelica became the first Warrior to record a double-double off the bench in his debut in 40 years. He led a bench attack that produced 55 of GSW’s 121 points. For a team that can get major contributions from one player one game and another the next, Bjelica proved in the season opener he’ll be right there in the mix.
In the opener, Golden State used Bjelica primarily as a small-ball center. Without James Wiseman, the Warriors opted against staggering Draymond Green and Kevon Looney’s minutes, often leaving Bjelica as the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-9.
The 33-year-old Bjelica is on his fourth team in his seventh NBA season. It took “less than a minute” for him to sign the veteran’s minimum contract offer from the Warriors this summer, he said.
Perhaps he sensed just how well he could fit in the Bay.
“He’s much more than a shooter,” head coach Steve Kerr said of Bjelica. “Great passer, just a really great basketball player. He enjoys playing with the team because he gets to play his game and not being pigeonholed…Guys with great feel have always been a great fit for us.”
Bjelica has always been able to stretch the floor, making him an ideal offensive small-ball big. He shot over 40% from deep for three straight seasons before dropping off to 31.8% in the shortened 2020 season. Even when he doesn’t have the ball and even when he doesn’t shoot, opposing defenses have to respect the threat of his outside shot — and that can mean less gravitational pull toward Curry. It makes him a particularly effective pick-and-pop partner with Curry.
In the opener, Bjelica was most effective making plays off the dribble. He finished over Dwight Howard with a euro step in transition. Six of his seven attempts came inside the arc, with floaters also released on-target with touch.
His passing ability could also allow him to thrive in Golden State’s system.
Bjelica racked up four assists on Tuesday, often making extra passes against a scrambling defense. On short rolls, he displayed quick, accurate interior passing. The most important pass of the night rolled off his fingertips after LA blitzed Curry on a ball screen when he found Andrew Wiggins for a wide open 3 late in the game.
Neither Curry nor Green knew Bjelica could dish like that before he came to camp, they said postgame. Another pass-happy player adds an extra threat to 2020-21’s best passing team.
“We knew he could shoot the ball, we knew he could space the floor,” Jordan Poole said of Bjelica. “But seeing the way he puts it on the floor, makes the extra pass and finds the open players, especially as a four or five, makes us a lot more dangerous.”
Bjelica is part of an overhauled second unit that appears much more promising than last year’s group. GSW replaced Kelly Oubre Jr., Mychal Mulder and Kent Bazemore with Bjelica, Andre Iguodala, and Otto Porter Jr.. There’s more veteran know-how to plug into Kerr’s system that requires rapid decision-making on both ends.
Last season, the Warriors’ bench averaged 37.1 points per game, 16th in the NBA. It was a far cry from the championship teams that boasted bench pieces like Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West, and Leandro Barbosa.
The Warriors might have so much depth this year, their two first-round draft picks — Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody — may enjoy effectively a redshirt season.
Damion Lee also added 15 points against the Lakers. Juan Toscano-Anderson drew tough matchups on defense and made an impact. Andre Iguodala played 23 sterling minutes reminiscent of 2015, with Green saying postgame he looked “springy.” When Klay Thompson returns, Jordan Poole (20 points) could shift to an instant offense reserve role.
The Warriors are still experimenting with rotations, but Bjelica will be a mainstay if he can repeat Tuesday’s performance. Kerr has a plethora of options to mix-and-match; even before the two rookies, Golden State could go 13-deep (with Thompson and Wiseman).
The depth reminds Kerr of the teams from five and six years ago. Green, too.
“It’s a lot of depth,” Green said. “Still got guys on the bench that didn’t play much tonight who are going to play throughout the year and contribute. (Jonathan Kuminga) out, Wiseman out, Klay obviously. So we’ve got a lot of depth. And when we’ve had those teams with a lot of depth, we’ve done well.”