Many high school basketball stars can’t wait to finish their first year of college so they can make themselves available for the NBA draft. Several of them, such as former Maryland center Diamond Stone, leave before they’re ready.
For Bruno Fernando, the dream of becoming the first Angolan to play in the NBA — a dream that began as a young teenager growing up in Luanda after he gave up soccer — is about to become a reality Thursday. Along with his physical talent, Fernando’s rise has a lot to do with being grounded.
This much is clear: Fernando’s decisions to take an extra year after finishing high school in Florida to hone his skills at IMG Academy, and then return to College Park last season after a breakout freshman year, helped turn him into a likely first-round pick.
Fernando said it was not what he heard from various NBA scouts and general managers at last year’s combine in Chicago that led to him to go back to Maryland. It was what he thought about his own game, and his future.
“Last year, no team told me I’m not ready, no team told me to go back to school,” Fernando said recently by telephone from Chicago, where he has trained since signing with agent Mark Bartelstein. “Last year was more my decision, watching film of myself and seeing a lot of little things I could improve on.”
It was similar to what he experienced coming out of high school.
After initially committing to Southern Methodist University as a junior at Montverde Academy outside Orlando, Fla., Fernando decommitted shortly before graduating, two months before SMU’s Hall of Fame coach, septuagenarian Larry Brown, resigned in July 2016.
Instead of trying to find another Division I team to play for that fall, Fernando reclassified for the 2017 class, opting to take a postgraduate year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He committed to the Terps in early October.
“I just remember how high his motor ran, how hard he played, and how athletic he was and how fluid he was,” recalled former Maryland assistant Dustin Clark, who led Fernando’s recruitment to College Park. “His skill level with the ball, in terms of his ability to dribble, pass and shoot was much better than advertised.”
Clark said while the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center might have been ready for the college game back then, his decision proved prudent — and prescient. Clark gave a lot of credit to IMG coach John Mahoney, a former assistant under John Beilein at Michigan, for refining Fernando’s game.
“He did a really nice job with Bruno’s skill development, and teaching him the right pace to play at,” Clark said of Mahoney, who also helped develop current Terp Eric Ayala. “Bruno could have played at the highest level [in college] that year, but I don’t think he would have been as productive as fast, and ultimately be where he is today after two years at Maryland. I thought that year was very beneficial for him socially, athletically and academically.”
In some of the private NBA team workouts he has gone through over the past month, Fernando has been matched up against other big men being considered for first-round or early second-round picks.
Fernando is in a group of big men expected to go in the first round that includes Bol Bol of Oregon, Jaxson Hayes of Texas and Goga Bitadze of the Republic of Georgia.
Asked how much it fires him up to face another high-ranking prospect in some of these workouts, Fernando said, “It doesn’t need to be anyone that is mentioned [being drafted] before or after me, I approach every one the same way.
“I will go just as hard and try to do everything to stand out as a basketball player and as a person. I just try to go out and dominate and do what I do. That’s how I see everything in life. I get excited playing basketball, not because of other people I’m playing against.”
One unnamed NBA scout, who watched one of Fernando’s team workouts and whose front office is considering drafting him in the first round, said via text message: “He’s a high-level competitor. Good motor for a big [man]. Plays hard. Improved at both ends for Maryland last year. Capable of playing in today’s NBA with his shooting potential on the perimeter.”
Another longtime scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Fernando was one of the most mature and grounded players he had talked with in recent memory.
“Obviously, throughout this process, it’s very important for you to make sure you’re being yourself,” said Fernando, who won’t turn 21 until August. “I think a lot of times people get caught up, I wouldn’t say in the hype really … a lot people are not really being true to themselves. For me to be myself at all times, keep a smile on myself and not try to be something that I’m not is very important to me.”
Said Clark: “It’s not his size and his strength and his athleticism and his skill on the basketball court that’s going to allow him to have a really long NBA career. It’s what in between his ears and what’s inside his chest. He is as special a guy that I was around in my 12 years of coaching college basketball.”
Along with becoming one of the most consistent players in the Big Ten last season — he finished tied with Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy with 22 double doubles and was named to the All-Big Ten first team as well as its All-Defensive Team — Fernando’s patience showed. He improved as a passer (2.0 assists per game) and eliminated his propensity to commit silly fouls.
Despite constant double- and even triple-teams, Fernando averaged 13.6 points on only 8.4 shot attempts per game while shooting 60.7%, second in the Big Ten to Purdue’s Matt Haarms. His 59.5% career shooting percentage is second to Buck Williams among Terps who have played at least two seasons.
As might have been the case with former Terps standout and current Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Kevin Huerter, who after being picked No. 19 overall was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie second team, Fernando said his game suits the professional game.
“I really think it’s going to help me a lot, just the spacing of the floor,” Fernando said. “I just think the NBA game is so much more simple [in the way teams defend]. Players just work and feed off each other. You just play your game and display your abilities. I think it will allow me to do so much more.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon agreed.
“Bruno is a more perimeter player than he showed at Maryland,” Turgeon said. “I do think we did have him involved in handoffs and he got away from the basket. It wasn’t necessarily shooting, but he played away from the basket some. I think he’s prepared for that. I do think the best parts of his game [early on] will be defense and rebounding. I do think he can make an impact if he goes early enough. He’s ready to do that.”
As much as Fernando long ago dreamed of being an NBA player, it wasn’t until he arrived at Maryland two years that he thought seriously about making it come true.
“My freshman year is when it really hit, like, I can do this,” he said. “My path was different. I wasn’t highly recruited. I was never that guy who got invited to camps and all that stuff. My whole career, my whole time playing basketball, I never stopped working. I never put my head down. I just kept working and getting better, and whatever happens, happens. It got to where I could dominate the game instead of just playing the game. That’s when I realized I could do some special things.”
Clark, who left Maryland after the 2017-18 season and now runs his own indoor construction business in Dallas, was a semi-regular in College Park last season and was in Jacksonville, Fla., to watch the Terps in the NCAA tournament. Turgeon and Clark will be in Brooklyn with Fernando for Thursday night’s NBA draft at Barclays Center.
Clark has seen tremendous growth in Fernando, on and off the court.
“I’ve never seen a kid with as much emotional maturity off the court and such a refined and complete sense of self,” Clark said. “He knows exactly who he is, he knows exactly what his principles are and he doesn’t waver from those. Just this kid’s perspective on life, the appreciation he has for the opportunities that he’s been presented with in basketball.
“He approaches life like someone who grew up in a country that is underdeveloped when it comes to basketball and academic opportunities. That’s never lost on him. He was able to make it out of that situation into these great situations he has been placed with in the [United] States. A lot of guys are presented with those opportunities these days, but Bruno has absolutely maximized it.”