Fan Duel Toronto Raptors


Jordi Fernandez: The Player’s Coach

A coach tied to history, and looking for more.

The first thing Jordi Fernandez did when he sat in front of the media in Toronto for the first time since leading Team Canada to a historic summer was not to talk about the recent Olympic draw, roster spots, or even his season with the Sacramento Kings but it was to offer his condolences to the Barrett family for the tragic and sudden loss of Nathan Barrett. 

Fernandez’s time with the Barrett family this summer was brief but it was impactful – and clearly – his ability to recognize that there are bigger things than basketball has helped him connect on a human level, not just with the Barretts, but with anyone he’s interacted with throughout his time coaching basketball. 

“Jordi connects so well to people,” said Mike Brown, who also offered his condolences in his press conference. “It’s not even close, he is way better than me. His connection and personality and all that other stuff are off the charts and, and I learned a lot just listening to him.” Says a lot about you as a person when your boss is openly saying that he learned a lot from his employee. 

But Kings Head Coach Mike Brown and Fernandez have a deeper connection than that. Brown gave Fernandez his first NBA opportunity back in 2009 when he hired him on as an assistant back when Brown was the Head Coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers who were led by the then championship-thirsty LeBron James. 

“He was already a really good coach,” Brown said when I asked him about how he’s watched Fernandez grow throughout the years. “The more he’s able to go out there and face challenges as a head coach, particularly at the level that he’s done it with Canada basketball, it’s just going only make him better. I’m just happy for him. And I’m rooting for him.” 

It was a whirlwind of a summer for Fernandez. He was knee-deep in the interview process for the Toronto Raptors head coaching job and while that didn’t pan out, he still ended up becoming the Head Coach of a Canadian team – the national one. 

On short notice, Fernandez had to take over for Nick Nurse who backed out just one month before the team started training camp for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. With the pressure of an entire country and the baggage of expectations of a promising yet often disappointing national program on his back, Fernandez and one of the most talented teams assembled in Canadian history were expected to deliver. 

They did. 

Galvanized by the voice of Fernandez in the locker room, the Canadian Men’s team weathered a few different storms throughout the tournament to win their first-ever World Cup medal, clinching a spot in the Olympics for the first time in over 20 years. 

But that’s just the beginning. Now, those expectations have become a reality, and with it… comes more expectations. The Canadian program has all the momentum necessary to keep progressing and join the likes of Spain, Serbia, France, and the United States as a consistent powerhouse in the basketball world. 

“It’s a long-term process,” said Fernandez when I asked him about building consistency within the program. “We have what’s in front of us, we believe we can get to number one in the rankings. But it’s not just getting there, but sustaining it. And that goes with everybody’s work. Rowan, mine, Mike, the players, everyone.” 

Part of that ‘process’ will be continuing to churn out high-caliber, NBA-level talent to throw onto the national team. While Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Jamal Murra, and RJ Barrett are still young, there will come a point in time when the program will have to find their replacements. 

And while most of that isn’t on Fernandez, building a culture that’s committed to excellence is. And it goes a long way in developing talent for the future. 

“I think the group of guys Rowan put together were amazing,” said Fernandez. “We’re going to have the opportunity to improve the team. And that doesn’t mean that we’re going to take just talent or players, we’re going to take pieces that help our group improve as a team. And I think that’s why a lot of special European Federation’s think the same way. You find guys who are connected and compete and it seems like the guys we have right now, fight for each other and it means a lot to them.” 

Part of the reason Fernandez was hired on in the first place last summer was because of his experience internationally, coaching Team Nigeria with Brown and serving as an assistant for various iterations of the national team in his home country in Spain. 

“In my experience, especially with the Spanish national team, I believe we’ve blended and made three or four generations,” Fernandez said about how he looks at the future outlook of Canadian basketball. He went on to list Pau and Marc Gasol, Jorge Garbajosa, Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, the Hernangomez brothers, and many, many other players who have helped the Spanish side dominate internationally for nearly 20 years. 

Canada needs much of the same. They require SGA, Murray, Lu Dort, Barrett, and the rest of the crew to continue to dominate for the next decade. But they also need Shaedon Sharpe, Benedict Mathruin, Andrew Nembhard, Zach Edey, and Leonard Miller to carry the torch after that. Much like how this current generation is doing in place of Corey Joseph, Tristan Thompson, and the still-kicking Kelly Olynyk. 

There’s a fine line in international basketball between development, growth, and competition – and Canada, with its abundance of young talent, will have to not only walk it, but they’ll have to live on that tight-rope, constantly balancing the present and the future. 

So how does that all play out in this year’s Olympics? 

“The door is open for everybody,” said Fernandez when he was asked about the possibility of adding more NBA talent to this summer’s team. “We love the commitment and the excitement. As you guys know, a lot of things can happen, right? In my experience with national teams, it’s not always going to go as planned. So you have to be ready. We want these players to put us in a tough spot to have to make a choice. To be like ‘These guys are so good’ then it’s a good sign and we have to make a tough call but that’s ultimately what you want, right?” 

At some point, whether it’s this summer, or in the future, there’s going to be an influx of even more talent onto this Canadian team. That invites egos, personalities, differing views, and friend groups into the mix that Fernandez will have to manage. 

And according to Brown – that’s Fernandez’s secret sauce. And when I asked Jordi about this – his answer gave some great insight into just what makes him so personable. 

“I don’t know if I’m good. So that’s the number one thing. Sometimes you just have to try. It’s not always perfect. It’s not always easy because, in my job, I’m going to be telling a guy ‘You’re not going to play’ or ‘You’re gonna play this role tonight’ and having tough conversations, so it’s not easy. Everybody thinks that building relationships is about going out there and having fun, and a lot of times it’s the opposite. Again, I had a great experience last summer with everybody, not just the players, but the staff, everybody was on board and they all shared the same thing, right? We all have a common goal. And I think all of us staying connected and doing it together is important. So that’s the way I believe things have to be done in professional sports. I’m not perfect by any means, but I’ll try. I’ll try my best and that’s my mindset that even if I have to make a tough call, I’m going to do it because I think that’s best for the program.” 

When people bring up the concept of a ‘player’s coach’, most people often think of a coach who can conform to the needs of the player. And while that is the case at times, an aspect that is missed is that a player’s coach also has to coach. 

A coach must make the tough call. Must be willing to have tough conversations. Must be willing to walk that tightrope between competition and development. Must be willing to identify roles. 

But a coach must also be able to have conversations on a human level. To understand and recognize moments. To be cognizant of behaviours, egos, and personalities and somehow – manage them all. 

Fernandez has done that, all while successfully leading this team to heights it had never seen before. 

When Team Canada hits the hardwood in France in late July this summer, kick-starting their Olympic journey – it’ll mark 1 year since the program hired Fernandez as Head Coach. 

At that time, there were a lot of questions about whether hiring someone who had no experience as Head Coach was the right call. 

1 year later, I think it’s undisputable… 

It certainly was.