Bruno Fernando: From Angola to the NBA

Story by K.L. Chouinard

Twitter: @KLChouinard

When a reporter asked Charles Barkley about the United States' first opponent in the lead-up to the 1992 Olympic Games, Barkley didn't equivocate about how his Dream Team squad would match up.

"I don't know anything about Angola, but Angola's in trouble," he deadpanned.

Twenty-seven years later, on the cusp of becoming the first player from Angola to play in the NBA, 21-year-old Bruno Fernando – a man fiercely proud of his home country – took a pragmatic approach to analyzing the match between his countrymen and a team populated by the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. 

"I mean, they were in trouble," Fernando said with a grin. "Obviously, it wasn't easy to play against the Dream Team. I think the competition was there. Our basketball program back there has evolved and grown so much since then."

A 116-48 loss to the Dream Team may not have seemed like a step in the right direction, but in a sense it was. Angola qualified for that Olympics with a victory over Senegal in the 1992 FIBA Africa Championship, their second consecutive victory in an event that they came to dominate. From 1989 to 2013, Angola won 11 out of 13 African titles.

Fernando earned a spot with his country's esteemed national basketball program during that era of dominance. After first picking up the sport as a tall nine-year-old, Fernando 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. It was there that Fernando caught the eye of many basketball observers with a strong game in the paint opposite a US team that featured Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Josh Jackson. Bruno scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against the eventual gold medalists, and in that performance, he paved the way to two years at top US prep schools and two seasons at the University of Maryland.

Now, after being selected with the 34th pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, the challenge for the 6-foot-10 forward/center is 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 the strength of what he was able to do inside.

"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 Fernando's 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 threes from the shorter NCAA three-point line and made four of them. At the same time, he demonstrated a scorer's touch on midrange jump shots from 10 to 15 feet. He also made 76.3 percent of his free throws as a collegian, an outstanding overall mark and one that might indicate the ability to stretch his shooting range outward.

Fernando wouldn't be the first center to add the three-point shot during Schlenk's tenure. Former Hawk Dewayne Dedmon converted 133 of 358 threes in his two seasons in Atlanta after only attempting a single three in his first four NBA seasons. Current teammate Alex Len, who also played his college ball at Maryland, made 74 of 204 threes (36.3 percent) last season – his first in Atlanta – after only converting six in his first five years as a pro. 

Len noted that it took time to earn the respect of opposing defenses, but once earned, the opportunities abounded in an offense centered on pick-and-roll plays run by Trae Young and John Collins.

"The bigs couldn't help on the roll and J.C. was getting wide-open dunks," Len said of the way teams changed their defensive coverages of him. "If the bigs did help on the roll, it was a wide-open three for me."

By no means is the three-point shot the only challenge facing Fernando, even if it is the one most different than what he experienced at Maryland. He must also adjust to facing off against bigger, stronger players at the NBA level. He has to figure out how to communicate with teammates in a defensive scheme that he himself is just learning. He needs to improve at defending without fouling and protecting the ball when he has possession of it in the paint. 

Of course, most (if not all) of these sorts of things can be said of every rookie pivot.

In the five games of the preseason, small steps of growth were evident in all of these areas. Fernando finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and 4 assists in 80 minutes played. He tied for the team lead with four blocks. 

Fernando also shot a sturdy 60 percent from the field in the preseason, making 5 of 7 twos and 1 of 3 threes. 

"It was a good feeling. I'm not going to lie," Fernando said of his first professional long-distance connection. "I was wide open. I just caught the ball and shot it. I had a lot of confidence when I took the shot, and I knew it was going in."

If Fernando keeps making those shots, he might not be wide open for long – and that will be a good thing for both Bruno and the teammates with whom he shares the court.