Ma­tu­rity and mo­tor

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Don Markus

COL­LEGE PARK — Walk­ing to the vis­it­ing bench a few min­utes into Mary­land’s game at Ne­braska on Wed­nes­day night, sopho­more cen­ter Bruno Fer­nando was no­tice­ably up­set.

Aside from grab­bing a few re­bounds, Fer­nando was barely a fac­tor, hav­ing not taken a sin­gle shot or even touch­ing the ball much in the low post.

“I think he was frus­trated with ev­ery­thing,” Mary­land coach Mark Tur­geon said af­ter­ward.

As Fer­nando took a seat, as­sis­tant coach Matt Brady walked over and whis­pered some­thing in his ear. Re-en­ter­ing the game a few min­utes later, Fer­nando was more en­gaged.

While it would take un­til late in the first half for Fer­nando to score his first bas­ket, his body lan­guage and phys­i­cal pres­ence no­tice­ably helped the Terps.

An early seven-point deficit had be­come an eight-point lead in an even­tual 60-45

vic­tory, a much-needed win for a young team with a still-frag­ile psy­che that had lost three of its pre­vi­ous four games.

Though over­shad­owed by fresh­man for­ward Jalen Smith’s first dou­ble dou­ble against Big Ten com­pe­ti­tion — the for­mer Mount Saint Joseph star had18 points and11 re­bounds — Fer­nando’s con­tri­bu­tion could not be un­der­stated.

It was more than his 13 points, ca­reer­high 19 re­bounds and three blocked shots that helped Mary­land win the kind of game the Terps might have lost when he was a fresh­man last sea­son, or even ear­lier this sea­son. It was his self­less­ness that stood out to Tur­geon.

“All Bruno wanted to do was win the game,” Tur­geon said. “He was [dou­bleteamed] in three dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. He didn’t care if he scored; he just wanted to make the right plays.”

As No. 24 Mary­land be­gins a key three-game stretch against ranked Big Ten foes Tues­day night with No. 15 Pur­due at Xfin­ity Cen­ter, Fer­nando is in the midst of the most con­sis­tent stretch of his ca­reer.

The 6-10, 245-pound An­golan has scored in dou­ble fig­ures in each of the past 14 games, in­clud­ing a ca­reer-high 25 points Jan. 11 against In­di­ana, and grabbed at least 10 re­bounds in all but three of them.

In the 12 Big Ten games dur­ing that stretch, he has av­er­aged 15 points,11 re­bounds and two blocked shots a game. He has six straight dou­ble dou­bles. He is shoot­ing a league-best 66.2 per­cent from the field in con­fer­ence games.

Fer­nando said he isn’t aware dur­ing games of whether he is keep­ing the streak of dou­ble dou­bles alive or the to­tal — he has 15 — amassed this sea­son, one be­hind Min­nesota’s Jor­dan Mur­phy and Wis­con­sin’s Ethan Happ among Big Ten play­ers.

“I don’t re­ally look at the score­board. With me, I just try to get ev­ery re­bound I can. I just go for ev­ery sin­gle one,” Fer­nando said, sit­ting in the me­dia room at Xfin­ity Cen­ter on Fri­day af­ter­noon.

“I don’t re­ally worry about points, I know that points will come within the game. I have times when my team will try to go through me to make sure I score the ball, things like that.”

In­ter­est­ingly, Fer­nando said his big­gest con­cern re­mains how many fouls he has.

“I think the only times I look at scoreboards is to check on fouls, re­ally, if I have one, two or three,” said Fer­nando, who has cut down no­tice­ably from his fresh­man year on be­ing foul-prone.

A tip from a team­mate

Re­bound­ing wasn’t al­ways a big part of Fer­nando’s game even though he was typ­i­cally one of the big­gest play­ers on the court, go­ing back to when he con­verted from soc­cer to bas­ket­ball as a teenager in Luanda.

“I think there were times when I wasn’t the re­bounder that I am now,” Fer­nando said. “It was more like the tran­si­tion from high school to col­lege re­ally made me wake up and re­al­ize this is one part of my game that I can re­ally make an im­pact on.”

Fer­nando said he also learned about re­bound­ing from for­mer team­mate Sean Obi, who played spar­ingly as a grad­u­ate trans­fer last sea­son.

Ac­cord­ing to Fer­nando, Obi told him to try to get two re­bounds for ev­ery minute he played.

“I think Sean Obi was re­ally kind of that spark that hit. I was like, ‘What can I do that he does?’ ” Fer­nando re­called. “There were times when he played five min­utes, but he’d get six re­bounds. I was like, ‘Wow, how does he do that?’ ”

Tur­geon has said since the sea­son be­gan that there isn’t a more im­proved player in the coun­try than Fer­nando, who as a fresh­man av­er­aged10.3 points, 6.5 re­bounds and1.2 blocks, and was named to the All-Big Ten fresh­man team.

“I can def­i­nitely see mat­u­ra­tion and im­prove­ment in ev­ery as­pect of my game,” Fer­nando said. “Es­pe­cially in post­ing up, and just be­ing that post player and of­fen­sive player that my team needs me to be.

“At the end of day, a lot of times on of­fense, I’ve got to set the tone for my team. I’ve got to set the speed with which we play at. If I slow down, then every­body slows down. If I go too fast, then every­body else is go­ing to rush.”

Tur­geon said Fer­nando has made a quan­tum leap in terms of keep­ing his emo­tions in check and his head in the game.

“I wouldn’t want to say he’s more emo­tion­ally sta­ble, but he’s more con­sis­tent with [not] let­ting a play af­fect him, his body lan­guage,” Tur­geon said Fri­day. “He’s more con­sis­tent in prac­tice, he’s more con­sis­tent in games. He’s been more steady with his per­son­al­ity; that’s been a huge im­prove­ment.”

With Fer­nando’s abil­ity to con­sis­tently pass out of the con­stant dou­ble- and even triple-teams he faces, the Terps have be­come the best 3-point-shoot­ing team in Big Ten play (39.7 per­cent) af­ter start­ing the sea­son as one of the worst in the coun­try.

“The game’s re­ally slowed down for him. He sees things of­fen­sively now,” Tur­geon said. “He’s got­ten more con­sis­tent de­fen­sively. He can guard [straight] up. He can do a lot of things. Another one is lead­er­ship. He’s talk­ing in prac­tice. He’s only a sopho­more, but he has to act like a se­nior on this team.”

For­mer Mary­land All-Amer­i­can Len El­more, still con­sid­ered among the school’s best big men more than four decades af­ter his col­lege ca­reer ended, said Fer­nando’s im­prove­ment has come in his con­sis­tency and as­sertive­ness in the low post.

“Re­ally de­mand­ing the ball when he gets TV: Ra­dio: down there,” El­more said Sun­day. “That’s one of the things I thought was lack­ing, even when Di­a­mond Stone was play­ing [in 2015-16]. He was a tal­ented big, but he didn’t al­ways de­mand the ball and of­ten times he didn’t get it.

“This team is far more bal­anced of­fen­sively be­cause he’s down low, he de­mands the ball and his team­mates have con­fi­dence enough in him to get it to him. Plus he’s able to make [op­po­nents] honor him out­side, where he’s got enough of a touch to be able to stretch the de­fense.”

Get­ting his due

Fer­nando’s dom­i­nance as per­haps the Big Ten’s best true cen­ter led to him be­ing named Fri­day as one of 10 fi­nal­ists for the Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar Award, given to the coun­try’s top big man. It came a few days af­ter Fer­nando was cut from the list of 20 fi­nal­ists for the John R. Wooden Award that goes to the na­tion’s top player.

“Com­ing in as a four-star re­cruit, you don’t re­ally get a lot of at­ten­tion,” Fer­nando said. “That was never a thing I was look­ing at. I was never about the at­ten­tion. For me it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter be­cause it won’t make me not play the way I’m play­ing. Win­ning an award is like my team win­ning. ... People won’t re­mem­ber who won Player of the Year if your team doesn’t win a cham­pi­onship.”

Fer­nando’s re­cent play has also im­proved his stock among NBA scouts and gen­eral man­agers. Af­ter go­ing to the league’s scout­ing com­bine last year in Chicago along with Kevin Huerter, who was picked No. 19 over­all by the At­lanta Hawks af­ter his sopho­more year, Fer­nando re­turned to Mary­land know­ing he had to re­fine and ex­pand his game.

“No team specif­i­cally told me any­thing. Every­body was telling me to keep be­ing my­self and keep do­ing the things I’m do­ing,” Fer­nando said. “I’ve done a great job of keep­ing that in mind. I can’t re­ally for­get who I am — my shot-block­ing abil­ity, my re­bound­ing abil­ity, run­ning the floor.

“This year the team re­quires and de­mands a lot more out of me [of­fen­sively], but I’ve still got to be able to do those things for the team to be suc­cess­ful. At the end of the day, the things I did last year got me in that po­si­tion [to be in­vited to the com­bine], so keep do­ing it.”

What hasn’t changed since he ar­rived last sea­son is Fer­nando’s per­son­al­ity. Though tough losses tend to turn his big smile into a stone face, Fer­nando tries to em­u­late what he re­mem­bers from watch­ing his fa­vorite player grow­ing up.

“Grow­ing up, I was more about be­ing that en­ergy guy, hav­ing that pas­sion on the court, kind of like Kevin Gar­nett was, just hun­gry ev­ery night,” said Fer­nando, who also learned some of his post moves from watch­ing Hall of Famer Akeem Ola­ju­won as well as cur­rent All-Star Joel Em­biid.

Even that has be­come more un­der con­trol this sea­son.

“As a player, I don’t think my emo­tions were ever neg­a­tive [to­ward the team],” he said. “I think it some­times had a neg­a­tive im­pact on my­self. Just me, let­ting it get to me and get­ting frus­trated with my­self when I’m not mak­ing a shot. Or just run­ning a play wrong. I put in too much work to not have too many emo­tions about it. It’s just who I am, hon­estly. For the most part, I use it in a pos­i­tive way, which helps my team get go­ing, cel­e­brat­ing my team­mates’ suc­cess on the court.”

If any­thing, Tur­geon and his staff have tried to get Fer­nando to work less, es­pe­cially in the hours lead­ing up to games when he had a ten­dency of tir­ing him­self out in the weight room or prac­tice gym.

Still, some be­lieve that’s his great­est at­tribute.

“He’s got skills, no doubt about — he’s ath­letic, strong — but men­tally that’s where you re­ally earn your po­si­tion, by be­ing com­pet­i­tive, go­ing af­ter it play af­ter play, not tak­ing a play off,” El­more said.

“For the most part, that’s what I’ve seen of him. He wants to bang; he wants to dom­i­nate. To me, that’s the big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween him and a num­ber of other bigs in the Big Ten and across the na­tion.”

Fer­nando said he is able to block out the spec­u­la­tion that he is cer­tain to leave af­ter this sea­son with most mock drafts for 2019 putting him as mid-to-late first-round pick.

For now, Fer­nando is more con­sumed with get­ting the Terps back into the NCAA tour­na­ment af­ter miss­ing out last sea­son.

“I fo­cus on where I’m at, and I try to make the best of ev­ery sit­u­a­tion I’m in,” he said. “I’m not wor­ried about that right now. I’m wor­ried about us. We’ve got reg­u­larsea­son games left; we’ve got tour­na­ments left. That’s the things I’m look­ing for­ward to. You can’t worry about the fu­ture with­out com­plet­ing your cur­rent as­sign­ment.”

STEVEN BRANSCOMBE/GETTY IM­AGES

Bruno Fer­nando, left, is av­er­ag­ing 15 points,11 re­bounds and two blocked shots in his past 12 Big Ten games.

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