Rudy Fernandez is a man who has been on the radar of Blazers fans for some time now. The 6'6" swingman was brought into the Portland masterplan by Kevin Pritchard by way of a trade in the 2007 NBA Draft, where deep-pocketed owner Paul Allen gave up cash in order to secure his draft rights from the Phoenix Suns.
He continued to play last season with Spanish club, Joventut Badalona, and he's had a number of eyes in Oregon following him during this period. Thankfully for Fernandez, the pressure was lessened compared to other rookies-in-waiting, as he had another big expected rookie teammate who the Blazers faithful have been sort of expecting something out of...
After an unexpectedly solid season for Portland last season, every Blazer fan's discussion has been prefaced with, "when Oden, Rudy and Bayless come next season..." and thus, as alluded to above, there's been a heap of weight placed on these relatively young shoulders (even if most of it is apportioned on the rather strong shoulders of Mr Oden).
Even future teammate Brandon Roy has been keeping a close eye on Rudy's progress at the Olympics, hoping to catch a peek at things to come. And of course, the fanatics at the centre of all Blazerness, Blazersedge have been updating his situation daily (oh okay, hourly).
After Fernandez's solid first game in Olympic competition, against the powerful Greece, Dave at Blazersedge had these thoughts on his strengths:
"Rudy has good height and appears to use it. That quickness almost makes him seem rangy. As expected he moved well without the ball when the sets called for it. He also showed good speed up and down the court. His shot and release were quick as well, both in decision-making and execution. He doesn't let grass grow under his feet when there are points to be had. He's also fast getting up in the air. One of the problems plaguing the current Blazer leapers is that their rim finishes take a long time to develop. Rudy appeared to get in the sky in a hurry. I don't have many doubts about him being able to get shots up in the NBA. Everything that's good about him happens fast."
However, he also spied some weaknesses:
"The worst part of Rudy's game by far was his defense, which, aside for a couple noticeable moments, ranged from a high of semi-adequate to a low of wholly ineffective. He was reaching, leaning, and getting beat off of the dribble with regularity in the first quarter. He got a little more active in the second quarter but still ended up getting to the spot late, getting out of position, and/or playing with his arms instead of his feet."
For the sake of Fernandez, it's nice to see all of the "wait until Rudy gets here" hyperbole (fuelled by some spectacular youtube clips) tempered with some criticism of his game. The reality is, there is a good chance that Fernandez will be a nothing more than a solid rookie next season; a player who comes off the bench and adds some punch, but also makes his fair share of mistakes. It's worth remembering after all, that the player Rudy is most compared to, in Manu Ginobili, only averaged 7-2-2 in his first year with the Spurs.
It is hard not to get caught up in some of the mild-hysteria though, especially when you look at his Olympic performances so far in Beijing, on a loaded Spanish roster.
Game 1 (v Greece): 16 points (top scorer), 2 rebounds, 3/6FG, 2 treys, 4/4FT
Game 2 (v China): 21 points (behind Pau), 8 rebounds (tied for lead), 6 assists (top), 6/11FG, 2 treys, 3/5FT
Those are solid performances in two victories against quality international competition, with the second being especially exciting. There is no doubt that the NBA game is a different beast to FIBA ball, as evidenced by Team USA's struggles in the dark 2001-2007 period. However, this still bodes well for Fernandez's NBA career.
Some points again from Dave at Blazersedge, this time on Rudy's performance v China:
"The most impressive aspect of Rudy's game--and probably THE game overall--was the way he took over when the Spanish made their comeback in the fourth. Those two drives against Yao Ming were priceless. He picked that team up and carried them on his back. Others would come along and add to the win but Rudy did it first. Brilliant. You could tell how much the coach was relying on him as well by the minutes he got."
"I still drool over how well Rudy moves without the ball no matter how many cuts I see him make. If the other Blazers will recognize the potential there and take care to get him the ball...oh boy. This showcases his quickness more than any other aspect of the game."
Walt Szczerbiak, father of Wally is the US representative (whatever that means) of the ACB League and he has seen his fair share of the swingman in action at club level. He was interviewed by the Oregonian here and had some interesting things to say.
Later that summer, Fernandez traveled to Chicago and held a private workout for several teams at the NBA pre-draft camp. At the workout, Szczerbiak said questions were raised about whether Fernandez could get past players off the dribble.
"That workout maybe brought out a few flaws in his game, and I think it maybe scared him,'' Szczerbiak said. "So even though he was on everybody's radar, he decided not to go into the draft.''
Instead, Fernandez worked on his physique and his game.
"Now, he's an explosive athlete,'' Szczerbiak said. "He had to learn to put the ball on the floor a few years ago, and he has worked on that aspect of the game to the point where the team can give him the ball and ask him to create and make a shot in a game-winning situation.''
The impression I get from all of this (and you should read the rest of that article), is that he is a player who has matured and made the right choices, in not rushing to the NBA. He refined his game with sufficient high level professional experience and stayed two years longer in the ACB than he really had to. Many kids rush to the bright lights of the NBA sooner than they should (the examples are endless). Rudy has worked his game to a level which merits his entry to the league, based on skill, not those buzz words of tremendous upside potential.
There will be many eyes on Rudy Fernandez as these 2008 Beijing Olympics play out.
Here are some highlights of Rudy in action with Spain. He gets up.