The visiting Indiana Hoosiers had quieted the Xfinity Center crowd by taking a sizable early lead, and the Maryland Terrapins needed not just energy but a player who could take over the game with his skill. Bruno Fernando answered both calls, as he has done throughout a season that has showcased his growth.
Early in the second half in the Jan. 11 game against Indiana, the 6-foot-10 sophomore forward from Angola hit a jumper to begin a 16-0 run, during which Maryland finally tied the game with Fernando’s fast-break dunk. He then hit six more field goals during a 10-minute span. One of those shots was the third three-pointer of his career, banked in, to send a current of energy through the crowd.
As Fernando had one of the best nights of his Maryland career — 25 points on 11-for-12 shooting with 13 rebounds, three assists and a block as the Terps turned an early 14-point deficit into a 78-75 victory over the Hoosiers — nearly 40 NBA scouts and two general managers looked on from inside the arena.
Not all of Fernando’s stat lines have been as flashy, but his performances have consistently helped carry the Terrapins, who reached No. 13 in the country before falling to No. 21 after two losses last week. Fernando loomed large again in stopping that skid Tuesday night, when he led Maryland with 22 points and 10 rebounds — his fourth consecutive double-double — in a 70-52 victory over visiting Northwestern.
It has helped the Terps hold steady in a deep and crowded Big Ten race. Maryland sits in fourth place with an 8-3 record, 17-5 overall, heading into Friday’s game at No. 24 Wisconsin (15-6, 7-3). That matchup not only affects the conference standings, but it presents a marquee individual matchup between Fernando and fellow big man Ethan Happ, who leads the Badgers with 18.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.
“Bruno was terrific again,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said after the Northwestern game. “His rebounding, just every night. His efficiency on offense was great. I told him I didn’t like the three [a miss in the second half in his only attempt from beyond the arc], only because he was exhausted and he wasn’t playing defense at the other end. But he works so hard, I guess I can live with it.”
Turgeon has repeatedly said he doesn’t think any player in the country has improved as much as Fernando, and that growth has fueled Maryland while also boosting Fernando’s NBA draft stock. Many projections peg Fernando as a late first-round or early second-round pick, an outlook that was less promising at the end of his freshman season.
With Fernando’s second-year leap, he could have unknowingly given teammate Jalen Smith a look at what his path could be, too. Smith’s potential caused some to expect him to head to the NBA after just one year in school — and he still might. But as Smith has struggled at times, Fernando highlighted how much improvement can come between a player’s freshman and sophomore years.
Fernando finished last season with three double-doubles; this year he already has 13. From freshman to sophomore year, he has improved in nearly every statistical category.
Fernando participated in the NBA draft combine this past spring but did not sign with an agent, which gave him the option of returning to school. Much of his decision hinged on how he was evaluated at the combine. Because Fernando wasn’t a guaranteed first-rounder, the right decision was to return to College Park.
“He’s been great this year,” one Eastern Conference NBA scout said. “[He is] physical, can play in traffic, has more to his game than he’s allowed to show [and] always plays with huge energy and toughness. Wasn’t sure about him last year — looked underskilled and robotic — but he’s taken a big step forward.”
That scout called Fernando “likely first-round talent right now, but a lot can change.”
ESPN places Fernando at the No. 29 spot in its rankings of the best available players, and in CBS Sports’s prospect rankings, Fernando is No. 41. NBADraft.net has Fernando as the No. 10 pick in its mock draft published this week.
“He’s definitely helping himself just with how consistent and how productive he’s been, and also the fact that Maryland has been winning,” said Jeremy Woo, who covers the NBA draft for Sports Illustrated and ranked Fernando No. 29 on his list of the top 80 prospects.
“It's pretty clear that basketball matters to Bruno,” said Kyle Boone, who covers the NBA draft for CBS Sports. “I think that matters. I think that matters in the long-term. If you're a driven player, if you're a driven person, you're obviously going to strive to become a better NBA player.”
Fernando’s physical readiness for the NBA has never been in doubt; this season he has added excellent consistency. He’s scored fewer than 10 points only three times, whereas last year his production varied from scoring two points in 25 minutes (against Northwestern and Michigan State) to 21 points in 34 minutes (against Iowa).
After Maryland’s first game this season against Wisconsin, a 64-60 victory in College Park on Jan. 14, Cowan said he jokes with his teammates that “Bruno’s almost like a cheat code.” In that game, Fernando spent long stretches on the bench in the second half when he ran into foul trouble, and the difference in Maryland’s play became noticeable.
After Fernando picked up his third foul with 16:27 to go in the second half, he spent more than five minutes off the court. During that time, Wisconsin outscored Maryland 13-10. Fernando then reentered, but fewer than two minutes later, he picked up a fourth foul, which prompted Turgeon to again bring the sophomore to the bench. In the next five minutes, the Badgers outscored Maryland 18-6. Fernando returned with 4:06 to go in the game, when Maryland had just a three-point lead, and the Terps survived.
“[When] you don’t have one of the key pieces to the team on the offensive end, it definitely hurts and on the defense as well,” Cowan said after the win.
While Fernando nearly guarantees a solid performance in each game, Smith, a former five-star recruit, has been inconsistent. The 18-year-old from Baltimore is ahead of Fernando’s production last season with averages of 11.9 points and 7.0 rebounds, and he has recorded a pair of double-doubles. But he has also had five games with seven points or fewer, with some poor outings coming in Maryland’s toughest matchups, against Virginia and at Michigan State. When Fernando impressed against Indiana, Smith played poorly on both ends of the floor.
“It was one of those nights, tripping over his feet, fumbling balls,” Turgeon said after Smith’s two-point showing. “I felt bad for him because he’s such a terrific player. He came off his best game of the year” — 21 points and eight rebounds in a win at Minnesota. “It’s humbling for him, but love the kid.”
The still-developing Smith’s lack of consistency and physical readiness could be a concern to NBA teams. But the freshman’s tremendous upside and his ability to protect the rim and shoot from deep makes him an enticing prospect. He fell out of ESPN’s top 100 rankings, while other sites still have Smith inside the top 30 or just outside it.
Smith, of course, could thrive as the season continues or at the NBA combine, which might convince teams and Smith that he’s prepared to take the leap. But Smith could also opt to take Fernando’s route and use another year of college to better position himself for the draft.
With the information Fernando received from testing the draft waters, he said he spent the offseason trying to improve his game, focusing on free throws and developing his court vision and passing skills. Now, as he helps Maryland in the short-term, he is able to benefit his future, too.
“I expected to have the year I’m having,” he said. “I’m a very confident guy and I believe in the hard work that I put in over the summer and offseason and even when the season ended last year. I just focused on getting better [in] every aspect of my game, and it’s shown by the way we’re playing and I’m playing as an individual.”
Ben Golliver contributed to this report.