The end came sooner than expected.
With the flick of the wrist, Maryland basketball’s season was over, and Bruno Fernando was on the clock to make a decision about his future.
After a technical foul call on head coach Mark Turgeon with 16 minutes left, Maryland battled back from down 15 against LSU in the Round of 32. The Terps led by as many as three, but needed a late corner triple from Jalen Smith to knot the game at 67. With 19 seconds left, LSU’s Tremont Waters milked the clock, then slithered his way to the basket for a layup with 1.6 seconds left. Ballgame.
After the buzzer-beater, the Terps’ locker room was devastated and every player looked like they had either just finished crying or were still fighting back tears. A team that loved each other, and expressed it both verbally and on the court, had come to the end of its season in the most heartbreaking fashion.
In the corner of the room, Fernando sat with his towel over his head as swarms of reporters came and went. A very vocal player and leader, he had fewer words than usual. Staring straight ahead for most of the time, the gravity of his new reality had just been realized. After missing the NCAA Tournament his freshman season, this one meant a lot to him. And now it was over.
For the past two seasons, Fernando has loomed large in everything Maryland has done. At 6’10, 250 pounds of mostly muscle, he’s hard to miss. But now, the big question: will Fernando return for another season, or has college basketball seen the last of the center in a Maryland uniform?
It’s a decision two decades in the making, and it’s not an easy one.
Before College Park
Born in Luanda, Angola, Fernando first started playing basketball at the age of 9. A member of a big family, he’s the second-youngest of eight siblings. He’s the largest of the group, with none of the rest reaching 6 feet, according to the first installment of his “Choices We Make” workout video. No Angolan has ever made it to the NBA, but Fernando has pressed hard to put himself in position to be the first.
“I would say [in Angola] we’ve got a lot of good players and we produce good players,” Fernando told Testudo Times in May 2017. “But it all depends on you and your willingness to work and get where you want to be.”
His first time on the international stage came as a member of Angola’s under-16 national team in 2013, helping the nation qualify for the FIBA Under-17 World Cup a year later. That event, in which he played against future Terp Diamond Stone, was Fernando’s first time turning the heads of college scouts. Over seven games, he averaged 9.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game as Angola headed to an 11th-place finish.
After the World Cup, Fernando came over to the United States at age 14, and played at basketball powerhouse Montverde Academy his senior year (where 2019 Maryland signees Makhi and Makhel Mitchell later spent time as well). Originally a member of the Class of 2016, Fernando committed to Larry Brown and SMU in April 2016, but reclassified to the Class of 2017 shortly after. After the season, he returned home to help push Angola to its fourth FIBA Africa under-18 title alongside childhood friend Silvio De Souza.
“The transition from [playing] at home to FIBA tournaments, I think just helped us grow a lot more and realize who we are as a player,” Fernando said. “So I would say, if you can dominate at home, you may think you’re already done learning, you’re already done getting better, but now that’s why I think those things like FIBA tournaments and moving to the United States are definitely going to just help more and more as a player.”
He came back to the States after the tournament and did a prep year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he first started looking at Maryland. After communicating by phone previously, head coach Mark Turgeon made the trip down with former assistant Dustin Clark. Their relationship grew from there, and the consensus four-star recruit became the first commit in the Terps’ Class of 2017 on Oct. 6, 2016. Baltimore guard Darryl Morsell later joined and completed the class.
‘We just learned’
Fernando came into his freshman season looking more like a project than a prospect. He opened the season in and out of the starting lineup, and between eye-popping dunks and vicious swats, there were lapses on both ends and bad fouls. With 15 games in double-digit scoring, and 21 games with at least seven, there were also plenty of times where Fernando got into early foul trouble because he was too eager to try to block every shot that went up.
On the year, he started 20 of the team’s 30 games, averaging 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game for the season. He received a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team and earned Freshman of the Week honors twice. Maryland missed both the NCAA Tournament and NIT, but its rookies took plenty of lessons and experiences into the offseason.
“Last year, me and Bruno played a lot as freshmen, so we’ve seen everything,” Morsell said in Jacksonville. “We’ve seen tough environments, like in road games. We’ve seen great teams. We played a lot of great teams last year. Just through that, we just learned. We just learned, gained knowledge. So coming into this year, we’ve prepared for everything. We knew what to expect. We knew how to approach the offseason and stuff like that.”
By the end of the season, Fernando’s work and tenacity pushed him into the draft conversation, with projections around the late-first to early-second round. Justin Jackson, pegged as a potential lottery pick before the season, had lost his stock after being shut down with a torn labrum 10 games in, but he still declared and sign with an agent, ending his Maryland run. Fernando and Kevin Huerter then each declared without an agent, testing their stock but expected to return.
As athletic as Fernando is, he seemed like the type of player that could shoot up projections at the combine. Instead, it was Huerter who used the opportunity to blossom into a first round pick, while Fernando was advised to return to school in a class top-heavy on big men.
Having established himself as someone who excels most as a tenacious rebounder and high-energy player, Fernando returned for his sophomore year to prove he could do it consistently night in and out.
“I don’t know if anyone’s worked harder than Bruno,” Turgeon said at preseason media day. “The most important thing is my relationship with Bruno is great and much better than it was during the season. He trusted me through the process that he went through after the season, and he let me work with him, and during that time he was really getting better.”
Before the season, Fernando was able to go back home for just the second time since moving to America. He took a four-day trip to Luanda to get a travel visa for Maryland’s summer trip to Italy. It was just a brief trip, but the center was able to see his family and recharge after going through the draft process for the first time.
Maryland went on its training trip, starting to build a camaraderie and comfort level among the nation’s fourth-youngest team. On a group that played five freshmen in its top-eight and no seniors, Fernando grew up fast and was tasked as a leader his sophomore year. His biggest area of improvement came in his all-around feel for the game and his patience on the court.
“He’s learned how to get out of fifth gear,” Turgeon said. “Bruno’s always excited, right, so we’re trying to get him to where he knows he has to dial it down sometimes. He’s still emotional ... but really proud of what Bruno’s done and the improvement he’s made.”
The breakout season
By the time the season rolled around, Fernando was prepared. After spending time at forward and center as a freshman, the big man got an opportunity to solely anchor the middle his sophomore year. He lined up mostly next to Smith, a five-star freshman who, like Fernando before him, split time at the four and five.
Still Maryland’s emotional firebrand, Fernando opened the season strong with at least 15 points in four of the first five games and two double-doubles in that stretch. After fouling out in the season-opener against Delaware, he wouldn’t be disqualified again the rest of the season.
Consistency became his calling; outside of a three-point output against Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament, the sophomore finished with no fewer than eight points in a game. Save for two four-rebound performances and two five-rebound games, Fernando also grabbed at least eight boards in every contest.
“His pace slowed down. He’s much more patient,” Ivan Bender said of Fernando’s improvement. “He learned how to use his body and skills against other teams. Also on the court, he’s much more vocal and a much better leader. Off the court, he’s just an exceptional guy. What he does on the court, affects what he’s going to do off the court and I feel like he’s done great things and tremendous things off court as well.”
As one of the best big men in the conference, and probably the nation, Fernando commanded double-teams the entire season. Sporting an improved feel for the double, he started to find the open man consistently, and Maryland’s offense was run through him in the post. Each opponent added its own wrinkle to try to throw the center off his game. Some were more successful than others at speeding him up, but he was only truly taken out of the game in the conference tournament game and still finished with eight rebounds.
The sophomore finished the season as not only one of the most improved players in the country, but one of the best at the center position. He helped push Maryland to 23 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance while tallying 21 double-doubles on the season, third in single-season program history and the Big Ten. En route being named First Team All-Conference, to the all-defensive team and an honorable mention All-American, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, two assists and 1.9 blocks per game, all improvements from his rookie season. He’s one of five centers across the country eligible as a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbaar Award for best center in the nation.
In the NCAA Tournament, he posted back-to-back double-doubles trying to extend the Terps’ season. He opened his first March Madness experience with 14 points, 13 rebounds, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in a win over Belmont. He followed it up with a 10-point, 15-rebound game, but five turnovers, in the round of 32 against LSU. His 15 boards against the Tigers are the most in a Maryland tournament game since Jordan Williams grabbed 17 against Houston in 2010.
“Bruno Fernando is one of the top players in the country,” LSU’s Kavell Bigby-Williams said before what turned out to be Maryland’s final game. “He’s a guy who can really do a lot of things and helps his team win. There’s not many people like him.”
So what’s next?
With the season over in a flash, now the clock is running on a decision on Fernando’s future. Immediately after the game, the center was noncommittal on his next step.
If you read too closely into his postgame comments, the words “we will be back here next year” stand out. However, whether that’s the pejorative “we” or if he intends to return for a third year is a completely different question. Coming into the season, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Fernando’s sophomore year would be his last, but the emotions of the tournament may have swayed him. Regardless, it’s clear the last two years have been transformative for Fernando, both on and off the court.
“It’s been amazing, man,” Fernando said after the loss to LSU. “It’s been the best thing that could ever happen to me. Just putting on that uniform, representing the university. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that. Giving my all, every night, night in, night out. Doing it for my teammates, doing it for my coaches, that’s the special part about it. Just us, as a team, one through 15, having fun, enjoying each other, being around each other, smiling.
“Those are moments, as a person, you cherish your whole life. Nothing is guaranteed in life, and you just have to see it that way.”
I LOVE YALL TERP NATION.❤️— Bruno Fernando™ (@BrunoFernandoMV) March 24, 2019
I know rn it sucks for all of us, but there’s so much to be proud of, and even more to look forward to.
I have nothing but one thing on mind. And it’s to make You, My Family and Angola Proud and represent you the best of my ability.#CWM#HelluvaYear pic.twitter.com/5esXa9sP78
After declaring last season, even without an agent, he’ll have just one more chance to enter his name in the draft, according to current rules. He’s working his way up draft boards, and established himself as a probable first-rounder and potential lottery pick. He has been mocked as high as No. 9, but has typically fallen in the 14-30 range in recent mock drafts.
Fernando’s season seemed to be leading up to his departure, but after falling a play away from the Sweet 16, it’s easy to wonder if the calculus changes at all. If he goes in the mid-to-late first round, he’s guaranteed millions and becomes the first from his country to make it to the game’s highest level, while potentially laying out a path for Smith to follow in his footsteps. If he and Smith return to College Park, the Terps have a realistic chance to make a deep run, but that would require the delay of his lifelong dream. And with another season, comes risk of injury.
“Obviously, physically he’s a beast. The first thing you see is the body. But I think he’s gotten much better in the post at being patient, number one. When he catches the ball, he doesn’t rush everything,” Stadium college basketball insider Jeff Goodman told Testudo Times at the opening-round games in Jacksonville. “Number two, I think his hands have gotten better. I think that’s an area, where you look at last year, guys would be reluctant to throw it to him. Now, they’re a lot more comfortable and they know he’s going to catch most of the balls thrown at him, even outside his area, you don’t have to throw it right at his hands.
“He played hard last year, but I think he plays even harder with more emotion. I love the emotion he plays with. I think he’s a great kid. I think he improved his NBA stock. I would be shocked if he doesn’t leave. Shocked.”
Bruno Fernando in mock drafts
In an era of basketball that’s trending positionless, Fernando doesn’t figure as a stretch big at the next level. He’s capable of shooting threes—it’s something we’ve seen him practice and fare well with at availabilities the last two seasons, and the center went 3-of-9 on attempts this season—but simply put, proving his range wasn’t a primary concern for him. He knows his game.
“At the end of the day, I’m not somebody that’s trying to go out there and score 30 points,” Fernando said. “I know I can, but I’m trying to impact winning. I know that by doing the things I’m doing, I’m going to impact winning. ... When you’re doing something well, and people aren’t able to stop it, why get away from that and try to do something else?”
Regardless of his draft decision, he has left an indelible mark on the Maryland program over his two seasons. Whether it was seemingly dropping out of the roof for an out-of-bounds alley-oop against Rutgers his freshman year, or shaking off a defender around his foot to throw down a monster jam then stepping over him at Nebraska this season, Fernando will be remembered by fans for a long time.
The NBA early-entrant deadline is April 21, so he has a little less than a month to make a decision. Last season, Jackson was the first Terp to declare his intentions on March 28, 2018, while Fernando followed on April 6. Fernando’s decision could come around the same time as his last, or he could end up taking longer. This is a decision that will impact the rest of his life, and one he won’t take lightly.
“I mean, I’m having a lot of fun,” Fernando said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I’m having a lot of fun. I enjoyed every second of it.”