2019-20 Player Review: Bruno Fernando

Ben Ladner

As much as Atlanta’s acquisitions of Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon in February will help Trae Young, John Collins, and the rest of the Hawks’ core, perhaps no player will be more affected than Bruno Fernando. Rather than progressing into a larger role in his second NBA season, Fernando could see his minutes dwindle as the Hawks chase a playoff spot with a more seasoned and capable center rotation. Atlanta traded up in the second round for the right to draft Fernando in 2019, and he’ll almost certainly be on the active NBA roster (he’s under contract through the 2022 season). But the extent to which he’ll be a part of Atlanta’s success remains to be seen.

Fernando’s rookie season was defined by inconsistency. While he proved relatively durable and available, the big man missed six games in January and February due to a calf injury, and four more after the tragic passing of his mother. When he did play, both his minutes and his production varied from game to game. He’d show flashes of competence, followed by sequences of complete insufficiency. In the aggregate, he proved more damaging than helpful, but the outlines of a useful rotation player slowly formed over the course of the season as Fernando offered glimpses of the kind of heady, physical player he could become.

He often saw openings and opportunities on the floor, but the game moved too quickly for him to capitalize. He showed a grasp of the finer points of screening, artfully angling his picks or using subtle tricks to help clear space for teammates. Fernando occasionally proved useful pivoting the offense from one action to the next with dribble-handoffs, and made a habit of flipping the direction of a screen immediately following an exchange:

He even hinted at some on-the-move passing ability, which should translate well to short-roll passing and backdoor deliveries:

His assist percentage ranked in the 64th percentile among NBA big men, suggesting that he could eventually round into a capable offensive facilitator and connector. He also exhibited impressive touch around the basket, using spins, fakes, and off-ball movement to free himself for graceful and powerful finishes alike. Fernando shot 70 percent at the rim, where he took 65 percent of his shots; most low-usage bigs needn’t do more than finish those kinds of shots at a high rate.

That, however, was the extent of his offensive contributions. The rookie struggled to convert any shot outside of point-blank range, including shooting a ghastly 13.5 percent from beyond the arc. Nearly 17 percent of the possessions he used ended in a turnover, and his scoring efficiency left much to be desired given his position and how limited a role he played. Still, the Hawks encouraged Fernando to be aggressive on offense, particularly with his jumper. Despite his atrocious shooting as a rookie, he might still become a passable floor-spacer in time. With smooth, repeatable mechanics, Fernando shoots a light ball with good rotation, and his college free-throw shooting suggests decent touch from outside the paint. At the very least, he should be a serviceable roll man and inside finisher for most of his career.

His processing of the game was similarly spotty on defense. Fernando doesn’t have exceptional height, length, or explosion, but has the strength, heft, and instincts to develop into a sturdy rim protector. On one possession, he might let a drive slide right under his nose, preoccupied with some action on the weak side; on the next, he could identify an incoming threat on defense and proactively rotate to stop it:

By rotating on time and keeping their arms vertical, barrel-chested centers can present massive obstacles for opponents at the rim, and given his relatively ordinary physical tools, Fernando will likely have to master the finer points of defense to become a great defender. The rookie posted pedestrian block and steal rates -- a product of inconsistent recognition -- but the Hawks held enemies to nearly five fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Much of that could be due to unsustainable opponent 3-point shooting -- something Fernando doesn’t necessarily influence -- but he significantly aided Atlanta’s rebounding efforts and might have been the team’s best post defender.

If Fernando reaches a point of respectable 3-and-D play, it likely won’t come until later in his career, which complicates his role with the Hawks in the immediate future. Pencil in a combined 36 minutes each night for Capela and Dedmon, and another 12 with Collins at center, and it becomes hard to see where the 21-year-old fits in. Coaches don’t typically give fewer than eight or 10 minutes per game to rotation players, which makes Fernando nothing more than insurance against injuries or foul trouble. That still leaves opportunity for playing time -- Capela and Dedmon have dealt with nagging injuries before, and certain teams will necessitate the inclusion of a sturdy interior defender in Atlanta’s rotation -- but it likely won’t be as consistent as it was in his rookie year. 

That will hinder Fernando's growth, but such are the sacrifices an organization makes when it chooses to accelerate its rebuilding process. There could be a place for the Angolan center in the team's long-term future once Dedmon's contract expires and Fernando is ready for heavier minutes. Until then, he could be in for another year of waiting.