More than 40 scouts and general managers from 20 NBA teams packed the stands at Xfinity Center Jan. 11 to watch Indiana freshman guard Romeo Langford and Maryland sophomore center Bruno Fernando square off.
Langford and Fernando are highly rated prospects for the 2019 NBA Draft this summer, and they played like it.
Langford scorched Maryland for a game-high 28 points while Fernando posted a career-best 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting, 13 rebounds and three assists. Fernando displayed his elite athleticism on a ferocious block and a dunk two plays later to help the Terps overcome an eight-point halftime deficit to win the game, 78-75.
"He dragged them back into the lead. His energy was a constant that game," said Sports Illustrated NBA Draft analyst Jeremy Woo, who was one of the many talent evaluators in attendance that night. "You could really feel him out there. If we're talking about growth, that's not something I would have expected from him a year ago or last spring."
Last spring, Fernando was coming off a solid season and Big Ten All-Freshman team selection. His name began to pop up on some NBA mock drafts as a potential first-round pick, though others had him going undrafted.
Fernando declared for the draft but didn't hire an agent, which allowed him to return to school if he saw fit. IMG Academy (Fla.) post-graduate coach John Mahoney, who coached Fernando in 2016-17, was one of the people Fernando spoke to about the decision. Mahoney advised him not to hire an agent.
Fernando opted to return to school after attending the NBA Draft Combine and hearing feedback from NBA officials about how he might improve his game with another year at Maryland. The decision has proved to be a smart choice in retrospect thanks to performances like the one against the Hoosiers.
"These kids, it's hard for them," Mahoney said. "Everybody wants it now instead of being patient, but I think he made the right call."
Now Fernando is rated as a first-round pick by many experts; Woo has Fernando at No. 18 in a recent Sports Illustrated mock draft. He was named a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, which recognizes the nation's top center, and he finished as a first-team All-Big Ten selection.
When head coach Mark Turgeon talks about Fernando, he can't stop listing things the sophomore big man has improved on throughout the past year, from finishing at the rim and leadership to body language and rebounding.
"Bruno has improved in almost every area," Turgeon said. "I could go on and on. Every phase of the game has gotten better for Bruno."
Fernando has improved in every major statistical category from his freshman season. As of March 13, he's shooting 62.4 percent from the field, up from 58 percent in 2017-18. He's increased his scoring from 10.3 to 14.0 points per game. His rebounds have gone from 6.5 to 10.5 per game. He pulled down a career-best 19 rebounds to go with 13 points against Nebraska Feb. 6, one of 20 double-doubles he had in 31 regular-season games.
Even the 6-foot-10 Fernando's free throw shooting has improved; already at 74 percent last season -- a solid rate for a player of his size -- he has inched that number up to 76.6 percent this year.
It's no surprise to Fernando that he's been so successful this season. "Hours and hours" in the gym are now bearing fruit on the court, the center said.
"Obviously I expected to have the year I'm having," Fernando said in January, days after winning the Big Ten and National Player of the Week awards. "I'm a very confident guy, and I believe in the hard work that I put in over the summer in the offseason and even when the season ended last year, just focus on getting better."
Sophomore guard Darryl Morsell believes Fernando has started to let the game come to him rather than the other way around.
"Last year I feel like the game moved a little fast for him," Morsell said. "He's patient defensively and he's learned a lot. … But his poise and how he plays way more under control this year is probably his biggest improvement."
On most nights, Fernando draws double teams in the post, but he's been able to pass out of them with regularity to find open jump shooters. This has nudged his assists from 0.7 up to 2.0 a game.
"Coach says I got out of fifth gear and I'm in second now," Fernando said. "I think I do a better job reading the defense and just knowing when to make the pass and when to score."
This season hasn't been all awards and plaudits for the Luanda, Angola, native, though. He's struggled with turnovers at times, committing a season-high six against Nebraska Jan. 2, and he has turned the ball over at least once in every regular-season game, averaging 2.8 per game compared to 1.8 a year ago.
Against Michigan March 3, Fernando was forced into several difficult shots by 7-foot-1 center Jon Teske and finished 5-of-13 from the field. After the game, Fernando said he simply missed shots he usually makes, but the performance was a sign he still has work to do on the offensive end.
But even when he plays poorly, he's still able to influence the game defensively. He swatted a career-high six shots against the Wolverines and has recorded at least one block in all but three regular-season games.
The turnover issues and occasional poor shooting nights don't bother Woo because it's unlikely Fernando will be a primary offensive option in the NBA. Instead, he sees him as a rim protector and athletic defender comparable to Houston Rockets center Clint Capela.
Fernando has shown flashes of a face-up game as well, knocking down the occasional mid-range jumper. It's something that isn't necessary for him to succeed at the next level, according to Woo, but could come in handy.
"I think it is fair to say that if he ... can catch it and do a dribble handoff or hit an open three, if he adds that, it's only going to help," Woo said.
While he may still be a work in progress, the one thing Fernando has that can't be taught is his passion and work ethic, something he's had his entire playing career, according to Mahoney.
"He's always been like that," Mahoney said. "It wasn't one game. When you see a kid that big and picking things up fast ... you talk about a special player, someone who could play at the next level."
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 252: March 2019