Years of hard work paying off for Maryland freshman Bruno Fernando

The workouts began early in the morning, usually around 5 a.m., shortly after Bernardo Fernando dropped the youngest of his five sons and second youngest of his eight children off at the Primeiro de Agosto athletic club on his way to work.

With basketball practice not starting until 8, there was plenty of time for 11-year-old Bruno Fernando to practice the moves of his favorite players from the Angolan national team — and dream of representing his country someday.

“I was like, ‘Man, I want to be like those guys,’ ” Maryland freshman Bruno Fernando recalled Friday, as he reeled off unfamiliar names such as shooting guard Carlos Morais, center Joaquim Gomes and point guard Miguel Lutonda.

Back then, Fernando never thought much about becoming the first Angolan to play in the NBA or copying the moves of NBA stars such as Kevin Garnett. He was simply working at a game that came more naturally to him than soccer ever did.

His routine would often be the same: getting rousted out of bed by his father, who worked for a local import-export company, and accompanying his father on the 40-minute drive to the club where he would practice before going to school.

"I used to watch the NBA, but not as much. I would focus on watching the basketball at home, watching those guys,” Fernando said. “Watching them, I was always trying to do what they were doing, to make the move that they’re making.

“The way they shoot the ball, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to come into the gym and try that thing tomorrow.' I was a short kid. I kind of started growing up. All of sudden, I just grew up.”

In some ways, his life as a freshman at Maryland mirrors some of those years honing his game in Luanda, Angola’s capital, largest city and business and cultural hub, with a population of some 2.5 million residents.

Just as it was back home, as well as in the two years he spent playing for high-profile prep schools in Florida, the routine is pretty much the same, though not in the same order. Without the 4 a.m. wake-up, it almost sounds easier now.

“I can’t really complain about anything. I’ve been enjoying every day on campus, going to classes with my teammates, going to practice,” Fernando said, sitting in the press room at Xfinity Center before practice Friday. “Outside of basketball, that’s pretty much all I do on a daily basis: just go to classes and enjoy it as much as I can, come back to practice and go to study hall and go back to the room and relax, and the next day do the same thing.”

Just as it was back home, after Fernando had a major growth spurt at age 11 and started getting scouted by American college coaches by age 14, his game suddenly seems to be sprouting, too.

After three separate ankle sprains, as well as a bout with the flu that stunted the progress of the 6-foot-10, 245-pound center, the past few weeks have seen Fernando show the promise that has piqued the interest of NBA scouts.

Nearly two weeks after finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds at then-No. 3 Purdue and 7-2, 290-pound senior Isaac Haas, Fernando equaled his career high with 21 points, set a career high with five assists and grabbed nine rebounds in Tuesday’s 70-66 loss at Nebraska.

“The last minutes of that game [at Purdue], he was terrific. Bruno played in that game offensively like the kid that we think we have,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Friday. “He was making the 15-footers. That’s going to be a big part of his future here.

“I think he’s going to become a better low-post scorer. I think he’s going to be able to draw more fouls. … I think just his understanding of the game [is growing]. The game’s slowing down for him. There’s been a lot thrown at that guy this year. … He’s been consistently healthy for the past three weeks and it’s showing in the way he’s playing."

Said sophomore guard Kevin Huerter: “He’s just matured over the year. There was a lot of youth coming in. Being in high school, being so big and so dominant, a lot of times you can make one move and dunk on someone. Having people being so physical back, he had to figure out a way to make moves and score."

Fernando goes into Saturday’s home game against Rutgers averaging 9.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 57 percent from the field and 74.4 percent from the foul line.

“I think I made the biggest jump in how I approach things,” Fernando said. “I think that was the thing I was struggling with the most. For me, coming into every game, not thinking about it as much, just being able to just step on the court and play.

"Obviously my teammates got my back and they’re there to help me and let me know the things I have to do. As much work as I put in every day and being able to do it on the court is probably the thing I’m enjoying the most.”

Huerter, who put up similar offensive numbers in a different way as a freshman, sees Fernando’s learning curve accelerating as he gets to the end of his first college season — one Maryland fans hope is not his last.

“I think he’s starting to figure out how to stay in the game without fouling,” Huerter said. “Beginning of the year, he was really aggressive and really good, but he would get in foul trouble pretty easily.

“He got in his own head a little bit in the middle of the season. He was just out there and so concerned with being in the game and not fouling people, he wasn’t playing to his ability and doing the things that he could to affect his game.”

John Mahoney, who coached Fernando in his one post-graduate season a year ago at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has watched the Terps play “almost a dozen times" this season on television.

“I’m not surprised,” said Mahoney, a former Michigan assistant. “No matter how good they think they are, you’ve got to get acclimated to the Big Ten or wherever you are. You’re not going to go in and dominate the way you think you can. … He’s doing everything I thought he would.”

Said Fernando: “I’m not surprised by anything. I kind of expected doing the things I’m doing now. I work so hard on everything. I put so much work and effort into everything I’m doing.”

If there’s been a disappointment, it’s the team’s struggles on the road, where Maryland has lost seven straight Big Ten games after winning its road opener at Illinois, where Fernando tipped in a missed 3-pointer by Huerter to force overtime.

“I think for anybody, you don’t want to lose in anything you do,” Fernando said. “Losing just doesn't even sound good to say. I hate to lose. We’ve been in so much work for this. We go through so much to have a good season and win a lot of games. We never accept losing because it goes way farther than just basketball. It's something you can never accept in life.”

Just as injured forward Justin Jackson returned for his sophomore year after a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Xavier left him with a “bad taste,” the disappointment of not even reaching the NCAA tournament could impact Fernando’s decision come spring.

“Obviously for any player it kind of does, because wherever you go you expect to win,” Fernando said. “To have a bad taste in your mouth doesn’t help because it’s something you'll always remember. For me, I just want to play. I want to win and I want to enjoy every second. I love my guys here.”

One of the last pieces of advice Mahoney gave Fernando was about his decision to turn pro.

“You’ll know when you’re ready,” Mahoney said.

Fernando, who was part of the Angolan national team‘s unsuccessful attempt to make the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, said the year he spent at IMG prepared him well for his first season at Maryland.

“Not really worrying about what’s on the outside, not worrying about what the outside people are saying. Just focus within yourself and get in the gym and put in as much work as you can and go to class and do whatever you can do,” Fernando said. “Really just invest in yourself instead of wasting your time paying attention to what other people are saying.”

Still, the reality is thousands of miles away in Luanda, where his father and many of his siblings — the oldest is 34, the youngest 14 — work or go to school. His mother, Natalia David, is a retired nurse.

“I grew up in a different environment, not just seeing my family but seeing other families and people, seeing the struggle in a lot of the things. That’s probably one of the things that stood out to me the most,” Fernando said. ”I don’t want to go through that and I don't want to let my family go through that. If I work hard and do the things I’m supposed to do, it’s obviously going to be better and we won’t have to be in that situation.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
75°