Coaches have never had to beg Bruno Fernando to hustle or dive for loose balls. They have never implored him to pipe down his playful singing in the locker room.
They have told the 6-foot-10, 245-pound freshman not to slap the floor in anger because he does it with such force they fear he might break his hand. They had to calm him in down during the Maryland men’s basketball team’s win over Rutgers earlier this month, when Fernando, amped up at the end of an 18-point, 16-rebound performance, picked up a flagrant foul for pushing a Scarlet Knights player.
“It’s one of the biggest things I’ve had to adjust to,” Fernando said of trying to maintain emotional equilibrium while playing the best basketball of his young career entering Saturday’s regular season finale against 17th-ranked Michigan (23-7, 12-5 Big Ten). His recent stretch, averaging 15.7 points on 77 percent shooting and 10.3 rebounds over the past three games, coupled with his tantalizing physical attributes, have revived speculation that he might leave college after one season and declare for the NBA draft.
There will be plenty of emotion poured into that decision, too. Fernando, a native of Angola and the second-youngest of eight children, has always dreamed of playing professionally and wants to take care of his hard-working parents a world away. But there will be plenty of incentive to stay after this difficult season for Maryland (19-11, 8-9), which is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years and would bank on the return of Fernando to help lead a turnaround next season. Should he return, he would also be joined by one of the country’s top recruiting classes.
“I just try to block myself from the outside things. I’m just worried about Maryland,” Fernando said of his future. “I’m just trying to learn every day. There’s still a lot of things I still have to learn. I’m really not focused on the stuff that people are saying.”
Maryland is facing a pivotal offseason with both Fernando and sophomore forward Justin Jackson — who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in December — facing potential decisions regarding the NBA draft. Guard Kevin Huerter could also test the draft waters, although it is expected he will be back in College Park for his junior season.
Fernando’s name has come and gone on NBA mock drafts this season, while Jackson is rated as the 22nd-best prospect in this year’s draft class, according to ESPN.
There are only a few people who have Fernando’s ear in regard to his future, including Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who had recruited Fernando to SMU in April 2016. Those plans unraveled later that spring, when Fernando decommitted from SMU and reclassified from the 2016 to 2017 class; Brown would resign from his position later that summer.
“When I knew it wasn’t going to happen with Bruno, and I wasn’t coming back, I just told [Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon], ‘Hey, I think this is somebody will benefit, one, by being with you, and two, I think you’ll have a really good chance at recruiting him,” Brown said.
After Fernando arrived in College Park, Brown continued to text his former recruit, running his messages through Turgeon. They mostly have been simple words of encouragement during a freshman season that has vacillated between moments of brilliance and hardship.
Fernando has been named Big Ten rookie of the week twice and has made the nightly top 10 plays on “SportsCenter” three times with memorable dunks; he has missed games with two ankle injuries and played through illness for two weeks in January; he has switched positions, from power forward to center in the wake of season-ending injuries to Jackson and Ivan Bender and a heel injury suffered by center Michal Cekovsky. Fernando has overcome a midseason slump and his habit of falling into foul trouble, sometimes attributed to his constant exuberance,to raise his season averages to 10.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
Brown was cautious about Fernando’s pro prospects should he attempt to jump to the pros after one season.
“When Bruno goes [to the NBA], hopefully he has the ability, hopefully he has the opportunity to work hard and make a living, because he cares so deeply about his family and helping his family. And we’ve talked about that a lot,” Brown said. “But I don’t want to see a kid go when they’re not ready, because that really troubles me.”
That Fernando is even in this position is remarkable, given that he didn’t realize he had serious basketball talent until he was 14. He hit a growth spurt and learned his work ethic from his parents; his father, a manager of an import company in Angola, would drop 11-year-old Bruno off at a gym at 5 a.m. every morning before work. The place didn’t open for another three hours, so Fernando would spend time alone with nothing but a ball. By the time other children — among them Silvio De Sousa, who is now a freshman forward at Kansas — arrived to play, Fernando was a ball of energy. A few years later, he was being scouted by American coaches and had set in motion a move to the United States.
“We were always looking for long kids with long arms that played hard and played with a passion,” Brown said. “When we saw Bruno, he kind of fit that profile.”
He left home and his seven siblings, including a 32-year-old brother who works in London and whom Fernando said he met for the first time on a return trip to Angola last summer. His family live-streams his games as much as possible, including a 20-point, 10-rebound performance in a loss at Purdue in February.
“Bruno played in that game, offensively, like the kid that we think we have. I mean, 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 in time,” Turgeon said last week, perhaps hinting at the expectation that Fernando will be back for his sophomore season.
For the time being, Fernando has not allowed his emotions to become wrapped up in the decision.
“I don’t know when . . . whatever God has in place for me,” he said. “If it’s 10 years [to make it to the NBA], if that’s what it’s going to take, then I will go with it.”
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