Jordi Fernandez was destined to get a head-coaching job this summer.
Fernandez had just finished his first season as the associate head coach of the resurgent Sacramento Kings and emerged as one of the NBA’s top up-and-coming head-coaching candidates.
He interviewed for vacancies with the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks this year and was a finalist for the Phoenix Suns‘ job. But the role Fernandez ended up getting was unexpected and intriguing.
Nick Nurse, who had been the coach since 2019, reluctantly resigned from Team Canada to focus on his new start as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Canadians have assembled their best team in the country’s history and are expected to contend to win the World Cup for the first time with Fernandez at the helm. They made a powerful statement Friday on the opening night of the event, blasting France by 30 points in what was expected to be the most competitive and high-value game of the first round.
“It’s a great challenge and there is a need to get results right away,” Fernandez told ESPN. “It’s the best experience I can have at this moment.”
His reputation for relationship-building and his support system — he has been a trusted assistant to two-time NBA Coach of the Year Mike Brown and NBA champion Michael Malone of the Denver Nuggets — have gotten the attention of teams looking for head coaches.
“He’s going to be a head coach in the NBA,” Malone told ESPN. “He’s a people person who knows the game and has a great ability to communicate as well as build relationships with players.”
Fernandez has extensive international coaching experience with Spain and Nigeria, where he was an assistant during the Tokyo Olympics. That was a key factor in getting the offer from Canada.
“A lot of successful coaches have worked in the minor leagues and overseas and used that time as a proving ground and Jordi has done all that,” Minnesota Timberwolves coach Chris Finch, who worked with Fernandez on the Nuggets’ coaching staff, told ESPN.
“He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is trustworthy. Every path is different and his has been, but he’s been involved in a lot of things that point toward success.”
In a profession stocked with former players and those with family connections to the NBA, Fernandez has a unique story. He grew up outside Barcelona, went to college in Amsterdam and left a PhD program in sports psychology and a successful event planning business he owned in 2009 for an unpaid quasi-internship with the Cavaliers.
Brown had met Fernandez during summers in Las Vegas, where Fernandez came for several years to work on player development at IMPACT Basketball, a training academy popular with NBA players.
“My friends and partners in the business I had were like, ‘Are you crazy?'” Fernandez said. “I was 26 and spoke broken English, but I decided what I was doing wasn’t what I wanted for the rest of my life.”
Taking such a leap is common for those from outside the player or coaching trees who are able to put roots down in the NBA. Fernandez’s are established, and he’s trying to spread them with this weighty offseason job with Team Canada.
He has seven NBA players on his roster, including first-team All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, All-Defensive team member Dillon Brooks and strong young wing RJ Barrett. On the bench is Purdue’s Zach Edey, the 2023 Naismith Collegiate Player of the Year.
Despite a pipeline of talent entering the NBA from Canada over the past decade, its national team has underperformed. Canada hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 2000 and didn’t make it to the medal round of the 2019 World Cup.
Its international FIBA ranking sits at an underwhelming 15th, which is how it ended up in the same pool as Olympic silver medalist France and in the same bracket as Spain. One of those three teams won’t make it to the medal round at the World Cup in Manila.
Fernandez, who led Canada to a victory at a pre-World Cup event in Germany, took on the job with expectations to turn things around. Doing so — even getting one of the two Paris Olympic bids available to teams from the Americas awarded at the World Cup — would only enhance Fernandez’s credentials.
“We’re going to try to build the program together and take it step-by-step,” Fernandez said. “We know there are going to be some struggles along the way and we’re going to have to embrace that. But we’re going into this with the belief that we can win every single game.”