By one point of view, what Rudy Fernandez announced via Twitter (in Spanish only) on Tuesday afternoon is an admission of defeat. After four seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets, Fernandez will return to Spain to play for Real Madrid (his temporary employer during the 2011 lockout). It's a three-year contract, which will put Fernandez at 30 years old when it ends. Barring a drastic change, Fernandez will probably never play in the NBA again.
His time in America was a disappointment. When Fernandez came to the Blazers in 2008, he had just impressed the world with several terrific performances for Spain (including one very memorable dunk on Dwight Howard in the final). On top of that, he was no flash in the pan, playing several seasons in the top non-NBA league in the world and producing like an NBA-quality player. The expectation for many was that Fernandez would join with Brandon Roy to create the best shooting-guard tandem in the league, and that they'd team with healthy big man Greg Oden and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to create a championship contender. Portland already looked like a growing power — adding Fernandez was like if the 19th-century British empire suddenly developed fighter jets.
It's a gross understatement to say that things didn't work out as planned. The injury histories of Roy and Oden have been well-covered across the internet, and we need not relate them again in this post. But Fernandez wasn't so great, either. In his first few months with Portland, he dazzled as an athletic long-range shooter and even won the fan vote to participate in the dunk contest. While it wasn't well-publicized, he also set the NBA rookie record for most three-pointers in a season with 159.
That was essentially the peak of his career, though, because soon after he developed back problems, didn't get along totally well with Nate McMillan, and eventually found his way to the Denver Nuggets. Fernandez was a useful player for George Karl and the deep Nuggets, but he never looked capable of breaking out and becoming a star like he once had. That's no great shame — plenty of intriguing prospects have perfectly good careers without reaching their potential. Yet Fernandez promised to be a different kind of star from overseas, a wing with athleticism, skill, and style. We saw flashes, but we never what we'd hoped for.
And so Fernandez returns to Spain, where he figures to put up great numbers in the ACB and stay one of the most popular players in Europe. While Fernandez disappointed in America, it'd be wrong to act as if his chosen alternative is some sort of career failure, or that he's heading back to his home country with his tail between his legs. If we've learned anything from the increased exposure of European leagues and improved international sides over the past decade, it's that the quality of play is pretty darn good in other leagues. The NBA is still the best basketball in the world, but it's not the only great basketball, and the inability to perform to one's peak for the Portland Trail Blazers doesn't mean that someone can't fulfill that potential for Real Madrid.
Foreign players must make many adjustments, from getting comfortable in a new country to finding a role in a different basketball culture. Fernandez struggled with that transition many times, and in the end he decided that it was in his best interests to play in the league he knows best. We can take pride in American basketball, but we should also note that Fernandez is still pretty great at the sport. If we need any proof of that point, we should see it in a few weeks at the Olympics. Fernandez has left the NBA, but he'll be worth our attention on the court for many years.