Fernandez a rookie in name only
Rudy Fernandez, a pro for years in Europe, is thriving as a Trail Blazers rookie
Fernandez has impressed with highlight-reel plays as well as a reliable deep stroke
Nate McMillan on fearless Fernandez: "He's been in big games his whole life"
There were times back in August when Nate McMillan fought hard to stifle smiles, and even then looked like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary. Or better yet, el gato que tragó el canario.
The source of McMillan's excitement, anticipation and satisfaction, after all, was Rudy Fernandez, who had put his NBA-ready game on full display with Spain's national basketball team at the Beijing Games. McMillan, as an assistant coach with Team USA, had a front-row seat, a seat he very nearly leapt from -- in what would have been very bad form -- when Fernandez did this against Dwight Howard and the rest of the American squad.
The Redeem Team sweated gallons and worked tirelessly to reclaim Olympic gold. But no one endured as many bite marks on the inside of his cheeks as McMillan.
"I'm sitting there [in the gold medal game] with a straight face, trying not to smile,'' the Trail Blazers' coach told The Oregonian shortly after returning home.
It was all McMillan could do not to applaud, he admitted, and he struggled mightily to keep a straight face whenever fellow assistant Mike D'Antoni nudged him and raved about the lanky, perpetually-in-motion backcourt player. It was D'Antoni's former team (the Suns) that traded Fernandez's NBA rights to Portland in June 2007, along with guard James Jones, for an estimated $3 million. After one more season with Joventut Badalona (21.2 points, 4.1 assists, 49 percent shooting) in the Spanish ACB League, Fernandez is a Blazers rookie. He is the most ready and currently the most exciting of their four, including Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless and Nicolas Batum.
"He might beat me -- he might win the Rookie of the Year!'' a beaming Oden told me Saturday night after Portland's 88-83 victory at Minnesota.
Not based on this game: Oden had 13 points, eight rebounds and three blocks; Fernanez finished with three points (on 1-of-5 shooting) in 25 minutes. But it probably was the 6-foot-5 shooting guard's worst NBA performance so far, only his second test in the tail end of a back-to-back, and he still managed six rebounds and two assists.
Fernandez scored 10 points or more in eight of Portland's first 10 games and hit 44.4 percent (24-of-54) of his three-point attempts. Meanwhile, he has impressed opposing coaches with his movement, at least when he hasn't been planted at the arc for spacing purposes, and dazzled fans throughout the league with his aerobatics (like this and this).
"You see him start to do something and you think, Oh, no!'' said Oden, seemingly happy to be discussing a Blazers newbie besides himself. "Then you stop and say, 'Oh. Good shot, Rudy.' He's been doing that sort of stuff for years.''
Fernandez, 23, already is in his sixth full professional season and he actually signed with Joventut Badalona at age 16, making one-minute appearances (according to his NBA Register bio) in 2001-02 and '02-03. That put him at 157 pro games before he unpacked his bags in Portland in September, along with two Olympics and other international competition.
"You can definitely tell he's played professionally,'' Blazers guard Brandon Roy said. "He's been doing a great job for us. We might not need him to do his heroic stuff every night, but we do need it on certain nights.''
Like last Wednesday in Miami, when he scored 25 points in barely 29 minutes, including 14 in the fourth quarter of a 104-96 victory. Dueling Dwyane Wade (36 points), Fernandez made all five of his attempts in that final quarter and nailed a spinning jumper with the shot clock about to buzz with 44.9 seconds left. In the Blazers' previous game, a 106-99 win at Orlando, he had three steals, drew a charge and scored half of his 16 points in the fourth quarter.
"He's better than a player who spent four years in college,'' McMillan said Saturday. "He's been in big games his whole life. You can see that out on the floor. For years, he's been the go-to guy on his team. We go to him here, too, but he's also having to play off some of our other guys.''
Said Fernandez, in improving English: "Brandon is a superstar. When he's playing, he makes more space for the shooters.''
McMillan at times this fall has been muted in his praise of Fernandez -- a noticeable shift from August -- in what some Blazers insiders see as a motivational tactic, a way of challenging him and keeping him grounded. But get the Blazers' coach talking about the potential of using Fernandez and Roy together in the backcourt -- something they've done so far only in stretches of six or seven minutes -- and his eyes light up. Against New Orleans the other night, it forced Byron Scott to stick defensive ace James Posey on one of them, with Chris Paul or Peja Stojakovic left to fend off the other.
"That's a lineup I'm still looking at,'' McMillan said. "We have matchups [advantages]. With Brandon playing the point, who do you put your point guard on? Recognizing that and knowing the plays to call, that is those two guys and this team picking up things like that.''
Said Roy: "We're tough for teams to defend. I'm good with the ball, he's good without the ball. You have to ask yourself, Who do you put your best defender on? We're going to develop even more chemistry as the season goes on.''
At which point McMillan won't have to stifle those smiles anymore.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.