AFTER ROOKIE swingman Rudy Fernández dazzled the Trail Blazers' fan base with his slick passing in early preseason games, Jim Taylor, the team's director of communications, tried out a new nickname for the 23-year-old Spaniard. "How does the Dish Network sound?" wondered Taylor.
Pretty good. After all, Fernández already had the first part of the moniker down. "Rudy walks through the building, and all the females start swooning," says Cheri Hanson, Taylor's boss.
The curly-haired, scruffy, blade-thin, 6'6" Mallorca native had already seduced plenty of NBA execs even before his outstanding play in the Olympics, including his team-high 22 points in Spain's 118--107 loss to the U.S. in the gold medal game. Portland coach Nate McMillan remembers sitting beside fellow U.S. assistant Mike D'Antoni of the Knicks and trying not to look smug (or, for that matter, to applaud) every time Fernández made an athletic play, which was often. "Your player, huh?" D'Antoni would say with a knowing smile.
"Yeah, no big deal," McMillan would say, his smile equally knowing.
While the wait for Greg Oden commanded most of the headlines, the Blazers' brass was also quietly and almost as eagerly anticipating the arrival of Fernández, who was taken 24th in the 2007 draft by the Suns and immediately traded to Portland. It wasn't until six weeks before the Beijing Games that he decided to leave DKV Joventut Badalona, his team for the last seven years. The answer that Fernández invariably gives when asked about coming to the U.S. is that it has always been his dream to compete against the best. But he's not some starstruck kid just hankering for a chance; he plans to contribute right away. "I know I can play at this level," says Fernández.
That's not in doubt for anyone who has seen him. He is a nonstop mover without the ball, an accurate shooter and a gifted passer who sees the floor. (He comes with the usual European caveat: His defense is suspect.) Fernández's versatility gives Portland an embarrassment of riches on the perimeter. Brandon Roy is a shooting guard who can be a point; rookie Jerryd Bayless, out of Arizona, is a point guard who can be a shooting guard; and Fernández is a shooting guard who can play point guard and small forward.
"Rudy plays the right way, he is fearless, and he can really, really pass the ball," says general manager Kevin Pritchard. "Those three aspects transfer to any level of basketball. That's why we wanted him."