Kobe Bryant, in a rare defensive mistake, reached in from behind instead of trying to go over Pau Gasol’s screen. Rudy turned the corner, caught an unaware Dwight Howard out of position and raced him all the way to the rim. He then elevated and dunked all over the now Atlanta Hawks big man. The Beijing crowd roared and pretty much every basketball fan in Spain got off his couch to celebrate.
That dunk was possibly Rudy Fernández’s most iconic play. The shooting guard had dominated the ACB and Eurocup that year and, at age 23, had already signed with the Portland Trailblazers, where he would stay for 3 solid campaigns. His play in Europe, based on his dominant athleticism and insane jump shooting ability, made fans’ minds wander into an attractive future of stardom and (basketball) riches.
We now know that said future never arrived. Part of that is on Rudy himself: for all his talents, Rudy never really developed his dribbling ability —one can still see him dribble with his right hand going left— and thus never unlocked the floor game that could’ve proved the ultimate complement to his elite jump shooting and passing skills. Part of it is on the basketball gods: after a hard Trevor Ariza foul, Rudy Fernández’s back was never quite the same. Today, after three back operations, his healthy days are nothing but a distant memory.
Still, Rudy Fernández’s return to Europe propelled Laso’s Real Madrid into Euroleague royalty. After 15 odd years of failing to live up to their lofty expectations, the traditional Spanish powerhouse has since Laso and Rudy’s arrival returned to what they feel is their long-lost home: the status of perennial contenders in every tournament they play. A lot of that was Pablo Laso giving the right guys the right roles —and especially managing Sergi Llull and Sergio Rodríguez—, but a lot of it was also Rudy Fernández’s play in those first few years, when he twice attained All-Euroleague First Team honours (2012-13 and 2013-14).
Unfortunately, Father Time remains, to this day, undefeated, and he’s famously merciless with those who have suffered more injuries. Rudy Fernández is —somewhat shockingly— already 31 years old. After a missed season in the 2015-16 campaign, where he only really contributed towards the very end after yet another back surgery, Rudy had somewhat of a comeback during the Olympic games, with an activity on defense and an accuracy in his long-range shooting reminiscent of his very best days.
It was a mirage.
With more than half of the EuroLeague’s regular season already behind us, we have enough of a body of work to begin reaching some —evidently not definitive— conclusions. One of them is that Rudy Fernández has solidly begun to decline. Although the Spaniard remains an important player in Real Madrid’s rotation —his weak side defence is still elite, as is his passing ability— his status as a player is clearly lower than it was a few years back.
This stems mostly from a physical decline. Rudy used to be a superbly athletic player by European standards, with a solid first step —especially since defenders had to account for his jump-shot— and a great vertical jump and body control, which allowed him to finish from tough angles and turn difficult looks into relatively easy ones. All of this has disappeared.
Rudy is shooting more than ever from 3 point range, with a mind-blowing 63% of all his shots coming from beyond the line. And look, Rudy Fernandez was always a prolific shooter –and indeed one of his main strengths in his prime was precisely his ability to make tough jumpers at a decent clip— but 63% is a marked increase from his mid 50s output when he was an All-EuroLeague First Team player.
In parallel, he is shooting less free throws than ever, with 0.14 free throws attempted per field goal attempted, by far the lowest rate of his career. Indeed, both of these marks are simply the current iteration of trends that have been steadily aggravating over the last few years.
These two metrics hint at an obvious conclusion: Rudy Fernández’s athleticism has definitively declined. Without his once-dominant first step, and given his limitations as a ball-handler, he struggles to get to the rim with any sort of consistency. Once there, the Spaniard is less and less of a threat to score or to draw fouls. This all broadly correlates with what he have seen from Rudy this season: a propensity to shoot from long range and an inability to get to the basket and make things happen the way he used to do. If he always favoured a jumpshot over getting to the rim, him being unable to blow by defenders using his once-dominant first step has severely limited him, to the extent where his trademark —but inefficient— step-back fadeaway three pointer seems to be a common occurrence as opposed to a last resort.
The main consequence of this is that, while clearly still a useful player, Rudy seems to no longer be good enough to be a featured player in a EuroLeague contender’s offence. He has only once scored more than 15 points this season —specifically, in the second game against Maccabi— and hasn’t even reached double digits in 11 out of 17 games so far. He is no longer the designated man when the shot clock is winding down or when the game is on the line; instead, Llull and even Doncic have completely taken those responsibilities over.
The situation is no different on the other side of the court. While Rudy is definitely still a plus defender, gone are the days where he would be matched up with the opposing team’s best scorer or generator. That task goes to Jeff Taylor, Dontaye Draper or even, recently, teenage phenom Luka Doncic, who has been matched up with elite guards and wings during the season.
This is not to say that he’s a useless player. Rudy is a serviceable wing —and perhaps even more that that— in a complementary role. He’s still a fantastic weak-side help defender, especially disrupting pick and rolls or closing out on shooters; and he’s still a good defensive rebounder for a wing player. He’s hitting around 33% of his three pointers, which isn’t terrible considering his shot selection, and he does seem to be a good spot up shooter (although there is no publicly available data to support this claim). His 21% assist percentage is a testament to his passing ability, he has ridiculously good chemistry with Ayón and Reyes in the pick and roll and he’s a good bet for a few highlight-reel assists every season.
He’s definitely good enough to be a high-end rotation player in the EuroLeague. And, as we saw during the Olympic Games, when healthy and in shape, Rudy can be a devastating force spotting up, hustling, moving the ball and playing sound defence in the half court, even switching onto the big men and denying the entry passes. But his time as an on-ball threat, a generator and a lead guard in Europe seems to have —slowly but surely— passed.