Pistons host big men Gafford, Fernando, fighting to protect diminished turf for big men

Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford and Maryland’s Bruno Fernando, headliners at Tuesday’s workout of six Pistons draft prospects, are trying to reverse the notion that big men can’t stay on the floor in today’s NBA
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by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Daniel Gafford and Bruno Fernando are regarded as late first- or early second-round draft choices. So what were they doing at Tuesday’s draft workout for a Pistons team that picks in the middle of each round?

In the best of circumstances, trying to impress enough to get the front office to invest the No. 15 pick in them. In the worst, trying to ensure that the NBA’s growing comfort with fielding lineups devoid of big men prevents them from slipping past the 45th pick.

Both are sophomores who flirted with the idea of the draft a year ago. They’re almost identical physical specimens – Gafford a quarter-inch taller at 6-foot-10½ and a few ounces heavier at 237.6 to Fernando’s 237 pounds as measured at last week’s NBA draft combine, though Fernando looks thicker.

A generation ago, an NBA team would have felt lucky to come away from draft night with one or the other. Now a team that takes one in the first round – if it could convince itself that a first-round choice invested in a big man was justified – might get the chance to draft the other in the second.

Fernando, a native of Angola who came to the United States in 2015 after stirring interest with his performance at a FIBA international tournament, understands that the days of the one-dimensional big man are over. So does Gafford, whose journey to the NBA isn’t quite as colorful – an Arkansas native who stayed home to suit up for the Razorbacks.

“In this day and age, when it comes to the NBA, back to the basket is almost out of the game,” Gafford said. “So being able to expand from that is real big with big men.”

Neither player shoots the 3-pointer with any degree of proficiency – or at all, in Gafford’s case. He took exactly zero in 1,709 career minutes at Arkansas. Fernando took all of 13 in 17 fewer minutes over his two years at Maryland. But versatility in a big man comprises more than just launching 3-point jump shots. It’s in being able to execute dribble handoffs on the perimeter, setting effective screens and presenting a reliable target as a roll man, defending from the rim to the 3-point line and being able to switch to the ballhandler without becoming an immediate target of offensive attacks.

And so on, and so on.

“One is my ability to make free throws,” Fernando said of avoiding being a player who gets yanked at the first sign of lineup downsizing or other circumstances. “That’s really going to keep me on the court. My ability to really step to the line and knock down free throws – and my ability to space the floor and impact the game in so many ways. I’m able to do that on the defensive end.”

“I’ve taken a real big (focus) on being able to contain people off of ball screens, containing people in the post,” Gafford said. “I take it real big on being able to move my feet when it comes to guarding guards, being able to contain off the screen so our guard can get back or if we have to switch being able to contain them to keep them from scoring. I try to base defense as the main point of my game.”

Gafford averaged 16.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots in 29 minutes a game for Arkansas, which went 18-16 and saw coach Mike Anderson get fired. Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots in 30 minutes a game for Maryland, which finished 23-11 after a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament.

They were part of a six-man workout group that also included point guards Ky Bowman of Boston College and Jaylin Walker of Kent State and wings Cody Martin of Nevada and Fletcher Magee – who broke the NCAA record for career 3-pointers made set by Oakland University’s Travis Bader – of Wofford. In the 3-on-3 scrimmages that ended the workout, Gafford and Fernandez were matched up against each other.

As two-year college players, Ed Stefanski and his front office plus scouts had volumes of information on Gafford and Fernando before their head-to-head match. But getting the chance to see them work against each other is a valuable tool when it comes to a final evaluation.

A generation ago, there would have been room for both on a roster with only Andre Drummond returning from the depth chart at center. In today’s NBA, Gafford and Fernando are fighting over greatly diminished turf.

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