Bruno Fernando was not a basketball prodigy.
Looking back, the 6-foot-10, 225-pound power forward wonders what might have happened if his best friend, Hermane Domengos, had not invited the then tall-for-his-age, skinny 9-year old to join him on a neighborhood soccer club nearly a decade ago.
The club, in their native city of Luanda, Angola, needed some players to fill out its roster for a basketball team as well.
"I just went and tried it," Fernando recalled earlier this week. "I was just like a tall kid and I didn't know much about basketball. Probably the first two weeks of practice, I quit soccer and I just stuck with it."
Not that the Maryland-bound Fernando, who'll be part of the U.S. team in Saturday's Capital Classic at the Verizon Center along with Mount St. Joseph guard Darryl Morsell, was a natural when it came to his new-found sport.
"I struggled a lot," Fernando said. "It probably took me three or four years to really get it."
When he did, he quickly developed. Within five years of first touching a basketball, he had made the national junior team for his age group. Within seven years, Fernando was one of the stalwarts on Angola's U-16 team that won an African junior championship and qualified for the FIBA World Junior Championship in Dubai.
It was there that Fernando got noticed by American coaches. Playing against a U.S. team that included a number of future NBA draft picks, including former Maryland center Diamond Stone, Fernando had a double-double — "I think it was 12 [points] and 13 [rebounds]," he said – and eventually received an invitation to play in the U.S.
After two years at the Montverde Academy outside Orlando, Fla., where he followed future NBA lottery picks D'Angelo Russell, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Fernando transferred to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Initially committed to Southern Methodist, Fernando reclassified and played a post-graduate year at IMG.
John Mahoney, a former Michigan assistant who is in his fifth season coaching at IMG, said that Fernando is different than other foreign players he's coached in how comfortable he seems to be in his new surroundings and how engaging he is with his teammates and coaches.
"I think it's abnormal, I really do," Mahoney said. "A lot of cultures are different and tough to get used to. I think it's just who he is and his personality. We've done different things with him here, treat him like a man, I think he appreciates that I treat him like everyone else. He's a great freakin' kid."
Mahoney had to be careful when Fernando, who averaged 20.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, started experiencing pain in his left knee 20 games into last season. Though an MRI revealed no structural damage, Mahoney shut him down for the last 10 games.
"He's fine now. He's back working out," Mahoney said Tuesday. "Some sort of tendinitis. We didn't want him to do any more damage."
It gave Fernando a chance to following his future team more closely, including flying up to watch the Big Ten tournament in Washington. Fernando paid special attention to the three freshmen who started most of the season, particularly point guard Anthony Cowan, who hosted Fernando on his visit to College Park.
"It was fun to watch them play, to see the way Coach Turg put his trust in the freshmen, he allowed them to play their game and not restrict them to do just one thing," Fernando said. "It makes you feel much better about going there because you know you can play your game and help the team."
Even with the recent news that junior guard Melo Trimble, the team's leading scorer in each of his first three seasons, would forgo his senior year to play professionally, Fernando said. "I think we can be a great team. I think Anthony has some Melo in him."
At IMG, Fernando has worked on improving his ballhandling skills and his ability to play with his back to the basket, but he is expected to play in the Terps' pick-and-roll game with Cowan and Morsell.
"I think I've always been [a good shooter], but just coming here and working with the coaches here, it's just got my confidence up," said Fernando, who led Mahoney's team in 3-point shooting at 44 percent and shot 65 percent from the field overall. "I think I've been putting a lot of work into it, a lot of time working on my shot."
Fernando has also spent a lot of time in the weight room, getting stronger and putting on weight. A gangly 200-pounder when he first arrived at Montverde, Fernando has put on 25 pounds during the past two years and hopes to add another 10 to 15 pounds before his freshman year begins.
"He won't play around and try to get out of it, he'll work at it," Mahoney said.
Just as he did nearly a decade ago when a tall-for-his-age, skinny 9-year old gave up soccer to try his new sport.
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. Suburban vs. District; 1 p.m. Capital All-Americans vs. U.S. All-Americans
Where: Verizon Center, Washington
Tickets: Available at Ticketmaster ($25 each)