Jordi Fernandez combines academic background, worldwide experience as Denver Nuggets assistant
The 35-year-old Fernandez just wrapped coaching Denver’s summer league team and is regarded as an up-and-comer in the industry.
BY GINA MIZELL, DENVER POST
Long before patrolling the sideline at NBA Summer League, Jordi Fernandez examined how the effectiveness of an offensive play can be determined by the team’s behavioral patterns before a shot goes up.
That was the subject of a 11-page academic article — complete with detailed charts, tables and a diagram of a full court — co-written by Fernandez in 2009 that appears in the 41st volume of the Behavior Research Methods scientific journal. The findings, the authors hope, will provide coaches with a new model to analyze how to efficiently call as well as construct various plays.
Fernandez is one published work away from earning his PhD in sports psychology. Perhaps he’ll finish his advanced degree whenever he is fired from his current gig, he jokes. But Fernandez is already putting his research into practice as the Denver Nuggets assistant who just guided the organization’s five-game run in the Las Vegas summer league.
“I can give my opinion (on sports performance) because I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, I have a feel for it,” he said.
That’s just one layer of Fernandez’s vast basketball experiences. He grew up in Spain, then studied and taught in Amsterdam and Norway. He worked his way up from coaching high-school and semi-pro teams to holding jobs in player development and with the G League affiliate with the the Cleveland Cavaliers organization, to becoming an assistant in Denver and with the Spanish national team.
Now, the 35-year-old Fernandez is regarded as an up-and-comer in his field, perhaps a future NBA head coach. There are two primary reasons why. One, he has a thirst for knowledge. And two, as one former boss said, he’s the ultimate “people coach.”
“He’s been around Hall of Famers, but he’s also been around the last guys in the G League,” said Mike Gansey, the Cavaliers’ assistant general manager. “Whoever walks through that door, he can relate to them … he’s either watched it, lived it or seen it. That’s why he’s so valuable.
“He gives more than basketball. That’s why I think our guys got so much better and people liked him so much … He could read people and knew when he had to get on them and when not (to) and how to treat them to get the most out of them.”
Learning to love the game
Fernandez’s hometown of Badalona, Spain is a basketball hotbed, the place where Rudy Fernandez (no relation) and Ricky Rubio once starred for top-level professional club team DKV Joventut before transitioning to the NBA.
Jordi Fernandez realized as a teenager that he did not have a future as a professional player, but he had a passion to teach the game. So he began coaching locally and, eventually, turned to academia.
After starting at a university just outside Barcelona, Fernandez enrolled at Hogeschool von Amsterdam. Arriving without knowing English or Dutch and being separated from his family for months at a time was an early mental challenge. But through his schooling, he became fascinated with the mindset of individual players — how they respond to various forms of coaching and how that merges in a team construct.
“Some people are visual. Some people need to walk through it,” Fernandez said. “You need to have a feel for them. You need to talk individually with them. But at the same time, you have a group and you have to teach as a group.
“My main thing has always been to find a way to compete and give yourselves a chance.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree, he became a professor at a university in Norway and taught high school gym classes and coached on the side. While working toward his PhD, he began traveling to the U.S. to work for IMPACT Basketball’s youth player development program.
That’s where Mike Brown, then the head coach of the Cavaliers, discovered Fernandez working with his teenage son, Elijah. Brown hired Fernandez in 2009 to work on Cleveland’s player development staff, a behind-the-scenes job to help improve players’ skills through individual workouts held outside of practice. A subsequent move to Cleveland’s G League affiliate, the Canton Charge, allowed Fernandez to utilize his full coaching repertoire as the lead assistant under Steve Hetzel and, for two seasons, as the head coach.
Fernandez maintained his player-development roots, using the first 40 minutes of practice for individual drills before moving to team concepts. During his second season as head coach, he managed a revolving roster of 26 players. While on the treadmill, he stayed locked in on his iPad or laptop playing a game film from somewhere in the world. He took his experience back to his home country as an assistant with the Spanish under-19 national team at the 2014 World Championships.
But Gansey said his phone calls with Fernandez while he was out of town scouting captured why Fernandez is still beloved in Canton.
“You talk to him for five minutes, and you feel like you’re his best friend or you’re an important person,” Gansey said. “He makes you feel wanted so much … He’s just got that personality and that presence, especially with players.”
Players Fernandez encountered during his time with the Cavaliers organization included LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Shaquille O’Neal. He experienced the rebuild after James left for Miami in 2010, and the elation of the 2016 NBA title run. He “survived” five head coaches and three general managers in seven seasons.
One colleague during that period was Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who was an assistant with the Cavaliers from 2005-10. Impressed with Fernandez’s development in the organization, Malone hired Fernandez as an assistant coach in 2016.
“He gets his foot in the door,” Malone said of Fernandez, “and he’s going to find a way to continue to fill gaps and do things that are necessary for the team and the staff to move forward.”
Growing with the Nuggets
Malone and Fernandez sat down for a difficult conversation last summer. Malone had hired David Adelman to be a front-of-the-bench assistant, which would move Fernandez behind the bench.
“He didn’t feel sorry for himself,” Malone recalled. “He didn’t pout. He was disappointed, and we talked about it. But he went out there and I thought he had a better year this year than he did last year.
“He was little bit more comfortable, a little bit more confident, a little bit more assertive.”
That presence showed during summer league, a coaching opportunity Fernandez called “one of the best things I’ve gotten to do” in his career. During a mini-camp before heading to Las Vegas, Fernandez directed the newly assembled hodgepodge of players with a tone and energy that was both youthful and demanded respect.
When asked about Fernandez’s coaching style, Nuggets point guard Monte Morris described Fernandez as both “real laid back” and “an all-about-business guy.”
“Don’t take no mess at all,” Morris added. “He likes guys that watch film. He likes guys that are locked in.”
Fernandez’s job this summer was to teach the Nuggets’ style of play — spacing the floor and playing through their big men on offense, along with protecting the paint and defending the 3-point line on defense. But he relished his return to concocting his own practice structure and quickly blending players into a team, a flashback to his G League days.
During one of those early sessions, Fernandez reviewed an offensive set and the proper defense to counter it. That was an opportunity for Fernandez to subconsciously dip back into his sports psychology research about how a play’s effectiveness can be determined by the team’s behavioral patterns before the shot goes up.
Fernandez then delivered a simple-yet-poignant message to the group.
“Do it again,” Fernandez said. “And don’t (expletive) it up.”