After an impressive four-year career at Valparaiso University, Vashil Fernandez became the newest member of the Miami Heat on October 17.
After blocking 119 shots over the course of his senior season, Fernandez joined the likes of Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Emeka Okafor on the list of single-season block leaders to patrol the paint of the NCAA.
With a bachelors degree and two masters degrees in tow, Fernandez declared for the 2016 NBA Draft. Along the way, the Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors registered interest, but the Miami Heat soon emerged as the most serious suitor and eventually signed the Jamaican-born big man to a non-guaranteed contract.
Despite the fact that the Heat already have 15 players under contract for the 2016-17 season, sources familiar with the organization’s thinking indicate that there is serious interest in developing the prospect who has only recently begun playing the game.
Fernandez is excited to begin the next chapter of his career.
“When I was living in the countryside in Jamaica, I never knew I would have the opportunity to play basketball [at this level] and get to go to college,” Fernandez told Basketball Insiders. “Now, I think that nothing is impossible.”
Like many of his predecessors including former NBA players Jerome Jordan and Samardo Samuels, Fernandez didn’t pick up a basketball until he was a late teen. A childhood friend and his peers, recognizing Fernandez’s impressive height, were among the first to encourage the then 17-year-old to give the game a shot. Living with his grandmother in Moneague, St. Ann, on the weekends, Fernandez would routinely take a two and a half hour bus ride to Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston. There, he would spend time with his mother and babysit his youngest sister. It was there that his journey began.
After being introduced to the game by a few neighborhood friends, Fernandez eventually relocated to Kingston to attend Calabar High School in pursuit of basketball. Ludlow Barker, the basketball coach at Calabar, saw his potential and funneled him to the Jamaica Basketball Association’s then president. With him as the founding cornerstone, Jamaica’s “Elite Academy” was founded in 2011. The academy operated under the Association for one more year, developing a few more talents and is now being relaunched privately to assist players like Fernandez with getting exposure, repetitions and, in many cases, scholarships.
Now, just seven years later, he has improbably risen up to become an NBA player.
“When I started basketball, all I said to myself was that I would put it in God’s hands and just try to make the best of the opportunities that I’d get,” Fernandez told Basketball Insiders. “Since then, I’ve always tried to get better and learn things fast and put my best into everything.”
When he woke up in Charlotte on October 20, it took him a few minutes to remember where he was. Far away from Valparaiso and much further away from his hometown in Jamaican’s Saint Ann Parish, things are moving quickly for the rookie. Not too quickly, though.
“He definitely has the instincts and the timing,” one scout told Basketball Insiders. “As long as he continues to work hard and learns to play at a faster pace, he looks like a prospect who has a future ahead of him, especially as a player with four years of college experience and some international play under his belt.”
Whether at the collegiate level or internationally, what has gotten Fernandez to this point is his impressive defensive instincts and shot blocking ability.
“Being a good defensive player is all about your mindset,” he said. “You need to take initiative. It’s all about being aggressive and having instinct and having the mindset of ‘What can I do?’ when one of your teammates get beat.
“Your timing has to be really good, but most of it all comes with practicing a lot. You work on it for many years and you’ll get better with it. Confidence goes a long way too.”
Before finding basketball, he grew up running track and playing soccer. Now, despite his limited on-court experience, Fernandez doesn’t lack confidence in the least. A man of intense faith, he believes that he is exactly where he should be, though he believes that there is still substantial talent back home in Jamaica.
“I think it’s far from where it needs to be,” Fernandez said of the development of the game of basketball in Jamaica. “We need to have more programs to help kids play basketball and develop their skills from an earlier age, starting them younger and putting them in situations where they can develop quicker. That will help them get to the states and do their best.”
In short order, Fernandez went from not playing the game to helping Jamaica make basketball history. After their impressive run in the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship, thanks to victories over Brazil and Argentina, Jamaica was ranked by FIBA for the first time, earning the 55th spot. It was after the tournament that Fernandez began to assert himself on the collegiate level. The rest is history.
The latest example of talent being discovered from the island known mostly for reggae music, Fernandez’s name, he hopes, is one that will become more renowned as time progresses.
“The NBA is the best basketball league in the world,” Fernandez said. “I’m here to pursue my dream, get better and help my team win… I’m just excited for this year and about playing for Coach [Erik] Spoelstra. He’s a great coach who really knows the game and knows how to use and develop big men.”
With the Heat seemingly embarking on a rebuilding project, Fernandez is exactly the type of player who could pay major dividends. In the not too distant past, Hassan Whiteside—the recipient of a maximum contract from Pat Riley this past summer—had been a forgotten man.
Based on his track record, if a prospect caught Riley’s eye, he’s worth keeping an eye on. Despite embarking on the journey somewhat late, Fernandez, it appears, still managed to arrive on time.
“I’m ready to contribute and help my team win,” he said. “I’ll be ready when my opportunity comes.”
It’s an opportunity he’s come an awfully long way to pursue, so it’s hard to imagine him not putting his all into making sure it wasn’t in vain.
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