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Back from a lost season, Oliva could be X-factor for St. Joe's

The Saint Joseph’s men’s basketball team has had to deal with a nasty case of the injury bug as standouts Shavar Newkirk, Lamarr Kimble and James Demery all missed extended time last season and rising star Charlie Brown broke his wrist this preseason.

But with most of the injury talk on Hawk Hill centered around those guys, some might forget that another key player was out for the entire 2016-17 season: Pierfrancesco Oliva.

Better known as “Checco,” the Italian-born forward was a freshman starter on the Hawks’ 2015-16 A-10 championship team before having surgery last June to repair a chronic knee condition. Now, the redshirt sophomore could be the X-factor on a St. Joe’s squad that, if healthy, can do some serious damage in the Atlantic 10 and beyond.

“Checco is a brilliant offensive mind,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said from the team’s media day Thursday. “He has to work on putting the ball in the basket, but he just seems a little bit older. He’s only a junior but he just has an older view of the game. And there’s experience there. He started on an Atlantic 10 champion team, and he played 14 minutes in two NCAA games. So he gets it.”

Oliva agrees that he can add veteran leadership to the squad — an exciting prospect for Hawks fans considering he still has three more years of college eligibility remaining.

“It seems weird to say since I only played one year but I think I can bring a lot of experience,” he said. “I played with guys like DeAndre' Bembry and Isaiah Miles, who are playing at a high level right now. We had that winning mentality and that’s what we need this year in order to be successful.”

Everything was indeed great for Oliva as a freshman after he made St. Joe’s his college choice after coming to New Jersey from Italy and starring for Bergen Catholic. He started 30 games in a loaded lineup that featured Bembry and Miles, averaging 4.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.

Things weren’t as good a couple of months after St. Joe’s took top-seeded Oregon down to the wire in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, as Oliva could barely get out of bed for about four months during a very “slow process for rehab” over the summer.

But during that time, he became a student of the game by watching a lot of basketball, including many St. Joe’s games. And he read the motivational book Energy Bus in an attempt to stay positive.

Now, he feels better both physically and mentally as he prepares for the 2017-18 season, which begins for the Hawks at Toledo next Saturday.

“He is somewhat like a kid on Christmas, that he's back out here,” Martelli said. “He really gets bothered if someone asks him how he feels or if he wants to take a set off or anything like that. He's a really good basketball player, and it's going to help the two big young guys. They are going to learn that this is the way you can play as a multiple-skills forward.”

Martelli added that practices can be interesting with Oliva because he “can’t say anything to him without him responding to me — and I kind of like that.” For Oliva, it’s important to have that kind of open dialogue, even if it’s not something other players are used to seeing.

“He considers me a high IQ player and I consider myself a high IQ player,” Oliva said. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything he has to say. And when I don’t agree, then I ask him and see what he’s saying. I’m not the kind of person who just follows orders. I’ve never been like that when it comes to basketball.”

But the 6-foot-8 forward added he has a “good bond” with Martelli. And he has an equally good relationship with his teammates, many of whom refer to him as an “Italian from the Philly hood” because sometimes he’ll say something in slang and “they’ll start laughing.”

Being on the court with their Italian teammate is just as much fun.

“With Checco, I call him ‘Hawk Eyes’ because he sees everything,” Demery said. “You think he doesn’t see you but he does. I said, ‘You saw me on that play?’ and he’s like, ‘I got you, bro. I see you. Just be ready.’”

Now, a healthy Oliva and the rest of his teammates are ready for a big season.

“I think we can surprise a lot of people,” he said. “We’ve been in the gym together since the summer and we know what we can do. But it’s easy to talk. We’re gonna be able to show it in a week.”