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Rudy Fernandez Vs. Lithuania: Analysis And Video Breakdown

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Rudy Fernandez showed flashes during a disappointing loss to Lithuania on Tuesday.
Rudy Fernandez showed flashes during a disappointing loss to Lithuania on Tuesday.

To this point, our coverage of the FIBA 2010 World Championships can be broken down cleanly into two groups.  It''s either been Nicolas Batum cheerleading (herehere and here) or Rudy Fernandez trade talk (too many to bother linking).

Today, let's try something a bit different by taking an extended look at how Fernandez played in yesterday's Spain vs. Lithuania game.  Where is his game at right now? What, if anything, are NBA scouts and GMs able to glean from his performance this summer?  

In case you missed the game, here's a one sentence summary: Spain built a double-digit first quarter lead and then was outscored 23-9 in the fourth quarter to take a surprising 76-73 loss. Fernandez started, played 29 minutes and finished with 13 points (4-7 shooting), 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 3 turnovers. It was a nice -- albeit incomplete -- effort and it's certainly worth a look. 

Click through for analysis and some light videotape breakdown of Rudy Fernandez's game against Lithuania on Tuesday.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter 

The first thing you notice watching Fernandez's play in this game is his activity level, level of investment and relative speed.  It starts from the game's opening minutes, when he scores the game's first baskets by hustling in an offensive rebound tip-in.  It continues as he darts up and down the court, tipping passes on defense in the open court and filling the lane behind Ricky Rubio on fast breaks. This is the Original Fernandez, the player who inspired so much initial fan interest during the 2008 Olympics.  

At times, it's a more mature Fernandez too. There's a settled feel to his play (especially during the first half) that has been virtually nonexistent in Portland. I read this as a product of his age (he's 25 now) and comfort level with his teammates.  Ricky Rubio gets him like no one since Sergio Rodriguez.

The results, at times, are spectacular.  Here's a Rubio-to-Fernandez alley oop.

Here's probably the best look at the "settled" Fernandez. He cradles a defensive rebound, takes off on in transition, remains under control, waits until he senses a hole and then immediately hits it like a running back and finishes in spectacular and fearless fashion.  

Watching that play it's hard not to rub your eyes in disbelief. Who is this confident, assured, opportunistic, aggressive player?

(You also have to ask the question: Would he attack the rim like that if NBA centers were waiting to dole out the requisite physical punishment? Is his comfort level here a product of the quality of competition and his place closer to the top of the talent pecking order?)

As the game continues, Fernandez's energy level doesn't wane much, if at all.  Right up until the game's final minutes -- as his team is busy giving away a huge lead -- he plays hard on both ends of the floor.

But that doesn't necessarily mean it's pretty to watch.  Indeed, Spain's fourth quarter meltdown yesterday mirrored a personal late-game meltdown for Fernandez.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly where it starts but as Lithuania starts to hit shots and pull closer, Spain tightens up on offense. The play slows down a bit, passes become more cautious, there's less off-ball movement and more standing, and there are less easy looks at the rim.

Watching Fernandez during this time period is a frustrating endeavor. It looks and feels a lot like 2010 Portland Fernandez as Rudy's high-energy seems to transfer into nervous energy.  He bounces in place, floats on the perimeter, retreats to the weakside, makes ill-timed runs into the paint (bringing his man towards a posting-up Marc Gasol) and generally looks lost.

Ultimately this starts to reveal itself on both ends of the floor.  Here's video of a critical defensive possession with less than four minutes left to play, Spain clinging to a three point lead.

Fernandez is matched up against Lithuania's Martynas Pocius and attempts to play the passing lane as the ball swings around the perimeter.  Rewind the tape and watch Fernandez's feet.  Just a mess.  There are only two explanations. One: Fernandez gambled because he disrespects Pocius's ability off the dribble and trusts his help defense. Two: Fernandez just got burned. I lean towards the second explanation but Marc Gasol doesn't really do Fernandez any favors down low. Either way, it's poor fundamental defense and an error in judgment on Fernandez's part and it couldn't come at a worse time.  

When a scout watches a play like this he is left to conclude that Fernandez can only guard one position at the NBA level.  Fernandez's frame makes him unable to guard true small forwards and while some teams might want to use Fernandez in a bigger backcourt, his lateral foot speed and technique still just isn't there. It likely will never be. When an NBA coach watches this play, he throws a clipboard, takes a twenty second timeout and stands out in the middle of the court with his hands on his hips in disgust.

Back to the game.  To Spain's credit, they mix up their offensive strategy quite a bit down the stretch (nothing is working, after all).  Rubio tries to artificially increase the tempo at times, Gasol gets isolated in various locations, Spain looks to free shooters on the perimeter, and they generally experiment with a much wider variety of looks than the Blazers would ever consider down the stretch.

With the game tied and just under two minutes left in the game, one of these experiments involves isolating Fernandez on the wing and letting him attack. Roll tape.

It's a critical, careless turnover by Fernandez and Lithuania never looks back.  It's not fair to label this play the "turning point" of the game but it was a major blunder.

Looking at that sequence through a scout's lens, there are things to like and dislike.  Fernandez uses the screen well, gets himself open and immediately senses the opportunity when his defender goes to the ground. From there, Fernandez goes back to his right hand -- as he almost always does -- and he does a poor job of recognizing where the help defense is coming from.  Whether he's surprised by the defender coming across the key, whether he simply loses the ball due to his inconsistent handle or whether he's simply too high-energy for his own good, Fernandez squanders this possession in so many ways.  He could have hit the pull-up jumper. He could have made the easy, direct pass to a spot-up shooter at the top of the key.  He could have continued to attack the post defender's body to draw contact.

In short, he could have had a plan.  It's clear, very quickly, that he didn't have a plan and he is the last one to realize that.  Sure, that happens when plays get broken by a defender falling down.  But an NBA coach sees this sequence as an opportunity for an easy basket not an opportunity for a careless turnover.  An NBA coach, especially one like Nate McMillan, watches this play and sees an opportunity to bring in a substitute on the next dead ball, too.

Conclusions

It's extremely easy to get distracted by Rudy The Trade Piece and forget Rudy The Player. The goal of this brief exercise was to remember Rudy The Player again. 

As of this summer, Rudy The Player is a high-energy, risk-taking, chance-creating two guard who can change the pace of a game on both ends of the floor.  He remains limited on offense (no mid-range game, propensity to go right way more often than left, adequate handle) but can produce explosively when his confidence is high.  On defense he is a good man-to-man defender if matched up with someone that he can stay with laterally and, when focused, can be an effective defensive rebounder thanks to his knack for finding the ball in traffic. He gambles more than most NBA coaches would want and the percentage of perimeter players in the NBA that can either take him off the dribble or wear him down physically is pretty high. His overall decision-making isn't bad but he is a very instinctual player and that can get him in trouble because his feel for the game isn't elite.

Put all of that together, remembering the fact that Rudy The Player is now 25 and is brushing up on his ceiling, and I don't think you have a reliable NBA starter. If Fernandez had either the strength to guard threes or the quickness to guard ones, then it's a totally different story.  But he doesn't, and he doesn't appear that he will develop those attributes in the future either.

What you do have here, still, is a two guard with top-level 6th man potential in the right system and with the right coach. Watching a Fernandez with renewed confidence this summer, though, only reinforces the idea that Nate McMillan is not that coach.  Calling Fernandez's fit in Portland a "square peg in a round hole" is understating it considerably because that implies you might be able to jam the peg into the hole somehow and make it work. Instead, this is more like a "square peg in a flat concrete wall," with the peg just sticking off the side of the damn thing looking like a tumor.

And that's too bad.  Because, despite the late-game mistakes, there was a lot to get excited about yesterday. A lot that would look good coming off the bench in a Blazers uniform.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter 

PS If you are still salty about Fernandez's trade demand and just came here to see the video of Fernandez getting facialized in transition, I got you.