January 11, 2020, 8:03 pm
Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to another installment of our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into the first Angolan player to officially make it to the the NBA this year, forward-center Bruno Fernando of the Atlanta Hawks.
Angola is definitely not known for its basketball tradition but most fans around the world sure remember Charles Barkley’s legendary response when the Dream Team happened to have the African country as their first opponent in the lead-up to the 1992 Olympic Games:
“I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola’s in trouble.”
Fernando earned a spot with his country’s esteemed national basketball program during that era. After first picking up the sport as a tall nine-year-old, he joined the Angolan junior program within five years and eventually helped the team win the 2013 FIBA Africa Under-16 Championship. That tournament win qualified Angola for the 2014 FIBA Under-17 World Championship in Dubai where he caught the eye of many basketball observers with a strong game in the paint against a US team that featured Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Josh Jackson.
His performance paved the way to two years at top US prep schools and a scholarship at the University of Maryland where, last year, he was the program’s best player, helping his team make it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where they narrowly lost to a stacked LSU team.
The Hawks taking notice
Frontcourt depth was one of the many needs the Hawks had on their agenda coming into the 2019 NBA draft and their GM, Travis Schlenk, fell in love with the Angolan big, becoming determined to pick him at any cost. Fernando’s name was scattered all over the NCAA’s and Big Ten’s leaderboards, and his 27.2 player efficiency rating per Sports Reference was 3rd in the Big Ten last season. Possessing a tremendous combination of size, length and athleticism, measured at 6’10.25 in shoes with a 7’3.25” wingspan and a 237-pound frame at this year’s Draft Combine, he is a powerful athlete with impressive agility.
Despite the Hawks not valuing second-round picks, the team took a chance on Fernando by trading away two second-rounders in exchange for the rights to him since he had a first-round grade on their draft board.
Positive signs during the summer
Fernando was one of the most improved players in college basketball from his freshman to sophomore year and fans were excited to see him step on the floor. He missed the Hawks’ first Summer League game because the draft day trade that sent him to Atlanta wasn’t approved by the league office in time but he played in the next 3 games, impressing with his energy and shot blocking ability, finishing second in blocks per game in Las Vegas at 3.3, and showing some range.
Still, it was evident that his offensive game is still a work in progress as he is far from a complete offensive player and does not command double-teams in the post. Coming into training camp, the challenge for the 6’10” forward/center was to expand his offensive game beyond what he was able to do in college, where he averaged 13.6 points and 10.6 rebounds last season, largely on his ability to dominate inside.
The lack of a true rim protector
The Hawks showed interest in re-signing Dewayne Dedmon during the summer but they quickly let him walk once the Kings threw a three-year, $40 million offer at him. Schlenk and the rest of the front office clearly have a long-term plan for the franchise and they were reasonably disinterested in committing part of their salary cap to a 30-year old center in the middle of a rebuild.
Atlanta instead opted to go into the season with Alex Len, Damian Jones and Fernando in the middle, with the hope that John Collins could chip in minutes at a position where he had success last year. Collins has never been much of a rim protector, or defender in general, and his thin frame causes mismatches with most centers even though he has improved defensively, averaging 2.2 blocks per game in 13 games so far this year.
The unfortunate suspension of Collins completely exposed the Hawks’ interior as Len and Jones proved unable to carry the burden during his absence. Head coach Lloyd Pierce was behind the Sixers’ 3rd-ranked defense during the 2017-2018 season but hasn’t been able to put his defensive stamp on this roster so far and the Hawks haven’t progressed at all, allowing the most points in the paint (53.4), the second-most opponent 2nd chance points (15.1), the fifth best field percentage to opponents (47.2), owning the fourth worst defensive rating in the league (112.9), while surrendering the second most points in the league (117.3) after the Wizards.
Opponents are not shy of attacking the young Hawks and even though Fernando is usually able to hold his own ground against veteran bigs, the lack of a cohesive defensive unit has the team at the bottom of most defensive standing in the league. Look at the rookie playing a solid one-one-one defense against Nikola Vucevic who misses the tough fadeaway, but then surrendering the offensive rebound to Wesley Iwundu who earns the foul.
A rookie’s world
And how does Fernando fit into that equation you might ask? Well, as we should have expected from a rookie, he is slowly adjusting to facing off against bigger, stronger players at the NBA level, figuring out how to communicate with his teammates in a defensive scheme that he himself is just learning, all while improving at defending without fouling and protecting the ball when he has possession in the paint.
Fernando hasn’t been able to consistently gain playing time in Pierce’s rotation, missing out a tremendous opportunity while Collins was sidelined due to his suspension. The reason for his 11.9 minutes per game is the inability to stay in the floor due to poor decisions like the following that usually drive coaches crazy.
Even though his body looks to be NBA-ready, the Hawks have thrown him in the ocean against far more experienced, seasoned veterans who attack him relentlessly. The rookie seems mismatched in the low post playing a a center and he has struggled to avoid fouling as opponents will immediately target him once he steps on the floor. The Hawks started him next to John Collins in a recent game against the Cavs and John Beilein wasted no time throwing the ball in the middle where Tristan Thompson easily won the foul. One thing specifically that hasn’t translated in the pros for Fernando is the blocked shots, with the Angolan big averaging just 0.3 per game even though he averaged 1.9 last year in Maryland. This is also a schematic adjustment as the rookie has to play a lot of one-on-one defense as a center and his explosive skills aren’t being used in his favor. Fernando can have a tremendous impact as a weak side help defender where he can use his speed and agility to cover for potential defensive mistakes by his teammates, but he is not able to do so playing as a center. Look at Cam Reddish allowing Will Barton to drive straight to the basket but Fernando staying alert and delivering an impressive block.
Trae Young and his defensive lack of focus
After an impressive rookie season in which he averaged 19.0 points and over 8.1 assists, Trae Young has immediately taken another leap in his sophomore season, becoming more aggressive and proving all his doubters wrong, averaging 28.9 points, 8.4 assists and 3.4, shooting nearly 37 percent from behind the arc and 44.3 from the field, making a strong case as an All-Star candidate and future superstar in the league.
Still, while the story on the other side of the ball is not equally important, Young has been a complete defensive liability on the perimeter, putting a heavy burden on his team on a nightly basis. Young ranks 3rd from the bottom among all qualified NBA players in ESPN’s Real Defensive Plus-Minus ratings behind only Isaiah Thomas and Bradley Beal, players that Young has defended are shooting 4.7 percentage points better when he has guarded them compared to their effectiveness on other attempts (Jabari Parker with 5.1 percentage points and Kevin Huerter with 6.5 percentage points are also atrocious), while only four players who have seen the court as often as Young (Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Patty Mills and LeBron James) are contesting fewer shots per 36 minutes than him.
His lack of defensive focus puts a tremendous burden on the defense to recover from him allowing dribble penetration and the Hawks are unsurprisingly failing to stop opponents. Look at how easily he surrenders the driving lane to Austin Rivers, a not-so-athletic guard who usually simply muscles his way to the rim.
The importance of the 3-point shot in the Hawks system
The Hawks have shown a propensity for turning big men that don’t shoot into above-average bombers in recent years, as evidenced by the shooting numbers for players like Alex Len and Dewayne Dedmon. They drafted Fernando because they believed in him being a good fit in their system and they set up the expectations for him since day one. “We feel like there was more there than you were able to see at Maryland,” President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Travis Schlenk said at his introductory press conference. “You’re going to see him step out and shoot threes. He’s going to be a good three-point shooter in this league.”
In his two seasons at Maryland, Fernando attempted just 13 triples and made four of them, while demonstrating a scorer’s touch on midrange jump shots from 10 to 15 feet. His shooting mechanics are sound but this hasn’t translated into efficiency as the big man has attempted 27 triples and made only four of them. Opponents are focusing in on Trae Young, but the ball movement hasn’t been ideal and Fernando is lacking the confidence and showing a hesitation to shoot, while the Hawks in general are having trouble bringing in passes and avoiding silly mistakes, standing, once again, at the bottom of the league with 16.7 turnovers per game.
Fernando specifically is being asked to take many threes from the corners where he is clearly not at all comfortable and his inability to make these shots means that Pierce has to keep using him a center instead of potentially stretching the floor as a power forward. Look at Young delivering a great pass on this play with the rookie having second thoughts and eventually taking the shot as Collin Sexton opts to smartly stay with Kevin Huerter instead.
Fantasy Implications: A long-term option
Fernando has had his moments this year but it’s clear that he is still adjusting while the Hawks are cautious with their big man, protecting him from being too exposed in the grind of a long NBA season. The rookie has been asked to do way more early in the season due to John Collin’s suspension and the results haven’t been good so far but patience is always in play with rookies and he is no exception.
Life is always bigger than basketball and Fernando is currently away from the team after the unfortunate passing of his mother with an unclear return date. Dynasty owners should feel excited about him as he has a bright future and he is a hard worker on top of everything but I don’t see a path to him becoming relevant this year.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s article and feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of January 11th.