The 2019-20 NBA season isn’t “over” but, with the coronavirus pandemic placing the season in a suspended mode, there is a distinct chance that the Atlanta Hawks won’t be playing again this season. With that as the backdrop, the Peachtree Hoops crew is looking back at the players still on the roster and how they performed in the team’s first 67 games.
This edition focuses on rookie big man Bruno Fernando.
With two top-ten selections in the in the 2019 NBA Draft, the potential goals for the Atlanta Hawks in the second round almost seemed inconsequential. As has often been the case in the Travis Schlenk era, the Hawks ended up moving several picks they could have otherwise used in 31-45 range, even before the draft began.
But when an opportunity to select Bruno Fernando presented itself, Hawks brass pounced. The trade that made it possible for them to make the selection would not become official until the second week of July when the 2019-2020 NBA league year commenced. In short order, though, it became known Atlanta was happy to have the young big man from Angola, by way of the University of Maryland.
Fernando became part of a largely new set of players to man the center position and, overall, those changes did not go well during the majority of the 2019-20 campaign. The Hawks struggled all year to defend the paint, but these results highlighted the shortcomings in the broader roster construction far more than the performance of the rookie in the group.
It was an intriguing combination of size and athleticism, to go along with a potentially emerging set of ball skills, that drew attention to Fernando as a prospect. He did not attempt many three-point shots in his time with the Terrapins, but a 78% free throw mark on good volume during his final NCAA season was encouraging for projecting his shooting.
And while decision making was a question on the defensive end of the court, his ability to get blocks and rebounds reflected a level of activity and a general willingness to defend that were attractive.
Because of the general issues at the center position, Fernando saw ample opportunity to play and logged more than 700 minutes during the shortened campaign. Despite being one of the worst defensive teams in the league on a per-possession basis with much of that due their issues protecting the rim, Atlanta posted a defensive rating of 107.6 — compared to the overall mark of 114.4 — when Fernando was on the court.
The results don’t remotely reflect flawless play by the rookie. He spent the first several months of the season seemingly lost when defending at the point of attack.
In fairness, big men that are trusted by their NBA teams to create on offense (Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, etc.) possess advanced skill sets that just aren’t encountered in other basketball settings. With that said, the techniques and reads the Atlanta coaching staff asks of defensive anchors was a mighty struggle for Fernando.
This was never more apparent than it was when Fernando (and teammates) were giving up points on back door cuts and the like. Atlanta’s defenders are asked to overplay the top side of the floor for the most part, and the scheme relies upon the center to pressure the ball in specific ways when defending at the elbow or mid post.
Some might call it youthful exuberance, but with some regularity, Fernando was able to recover on some plays, despite missteps and late reads, because of his elite mobility and his eagerness to stay in the play. That, in turn, helped lineups that included him from a statistical standpoint.
He was a willing team defender, seemingly always agreeable to present help at the rim. But whether it was an abundance of enthusiasm or otherwise, Fernando’s timing was inconsistent at best when operating as a weak side rim protector.
While Fernando is still very much a prospect (even though he will play next season at 22), the raw tools and the willingness to try to do what is asked of him defensively seem solid enough for him to be a contributor. His instincts and ability to read plays at NBA speed, however, are bigger questions that will require more time to evaluate.
The direction of the roster construction (big wings, for example) and defensive scheme seems to suggest Atlanta will seek to utilize big men that can help defend on the perimeter and recover to the interior to protect the rim. After the trade deadline deal that sent out Alex Len and Jabari Parker, the Hawks exclusively used centers whose strengths included defensive mobility.
This bodes well for Fernando. The acquisition of Clint Capela also seems to reinforce the direction. On paper, Fernando has the base skill set to function in this desired manner. As is the case with almost all young centers, he will need to reduce his tendency to commit fouls (5.4 per 36 minutes).
Offensively, his technique and timing in the dribble hand-off (DHO) were exceptional for a rookie. The DHO is a core staple of the Atlanta offense and Fernando’s intriguing ball skills showed in the action. 27 of his 49 assists (per the results of my charting them) came in DHO situations, which included an uncanny rhythm shared with fellow Maryland product Kevin Huerter.
On the season, Fernando had more assists than turnovers (42), which is encouraging in that he can possibly be trusted, in time, to work with ball handlers in primary action. He had ten assists on kick-out passes (good offensive reads).
His ability to move the ball and the fact that it seldom sticks with him was probably Fernando’s best attribute as an offensive prospect as an amateur. He did not disappoint in this area during his first professional season.
While the overall shooting was not what it is hoped to be eventually (14% from the arc, 57% at the free throw line), Fernando converted an impressive 71% of his shots at the rim. This included 57% on lay-up attempts, a better mark than noted finishers Rudy Gobert and Jarrett Allen.
His jump shot looks functional and the results on a handful of mid-range attempts support the idea that the confidence is there. Frankly, he was so useful in DHO action that his opportunities to operate as a spot up shooter never really materialized. That could come next season as his presumably plays with Collins and Capela, both exceptional in the high pick-and-roll.
In terms of optics, the play of Fernando was incredibly tough at moments during his rookie season. From there, the ugly plays will need to be cleaned up for him to make progress toward being a reliable rotation player.
Apart from that, there was little in his performance during the 2019-20 season to suggest he wasn’t worth a high second-round draft pick, which happens to be where he was selected.
In a nutshell, Fernando is an extremely willing team player on both ends of the court. If his decision making and ability to read plays on the defensive end can improve, he could become a viable back up big man in the league, with upside beyond that.