Going into the 2015-16 season, there were questions as to who would be the big man starting next to Isaiah Miles. Many pointed to Javon Baumann, who at 6-foot-8, 258 pounds, was the most physically imposing player on the roster. He had started the majority of the games the year before and it was assumed he would seize the starting role. There were also the intriguing picks. Markell Lodge, who had sat out the season before to focus on academics, had eye boggling athleticism. Jai Williams was gigantic and showed flashes of true potential. The last was sharpshooting senior, Papa Ndao, who was probably Baumann’s biggest threat at the starting role. But an injury set him back and Ndao was unable to start the season healthy. So it would be Baumann, right?
Nope. Pierfrancesco Oliva, the little known four man from Italy, would begin the season hearing his name called in pregame. Most fans didn’t even have a good sense of who he was. They would learn soon enough.
The 6-foot-8 freshman turned out to be as versatile as they come. Although he only averaged 4 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists during the season, he proved to be a valuable role player for the Hawks. Despite starting more than half of the games, Oliva only averaged 16 minutes per game. However, when Oliva played more than 20 minutes, he was quite productive. In addition to his only double digit games throughout the season, the freshman averaged 6.1 points per game, 5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game in 20 minutes or more of play. In those games the team was 7-1.
Along with the unique ability to grab rebounds, put the ball on the floor, and make the right reads in transition, Oliva was a solid standstill three point shooter. In other words, he was the perfect role player to complement the team’s fantastic scoring punch in DeAndre’ Bembry and Miles.
But now Bembry and Miles are gone. While many look at rising juniors Shavar Newkirk and James Demery to be the sparks, it is really Oliva who will hold the keys to a successful Saint Joseph’s season.
The team will be small to begin the year. Although they return Oliva, Baumann, Lodge, Williams, and add 6-foot-7 freshman Lorenzo Edwards, head coach Phil Martelli does not have a guy that tops 6-foot-9. Their lack of height may cause them to struggle to keep up defensively against some of the league’s top frontcourt teams. This means that they will need to counter on the offensive end.
Oliva will provide that offensive answer, as he has guard skills in a big man’s body. Although he isn’t overly athletic, he is fantastic in transition, as he can grab rebounds and run the floor acting as the point guard. Oliva’s vision is unmatched by most opposing big men, evident by his assist rate of 17.4%, which makes him the only big man in Saint Joseph’s history other than Halil Kanacevic to record a percentage that high since the stat was recorded. With that said, Oliva put up that percentage as a freshman. Even Kanacevic wasn’t able do that, who had an assist rate of 8.9% in his freshman season at Hofstra (where he transferred from after his first year). Oliva’s vision and ability to bring the ball up puts a lot of pressure on opposing big men.
Oliva also has the rare opportunity to replicate and give Saint Joseph’s the same presence that Miles gave them as a versatile big man. His ability to stretch the floor, but also play in the post provides a great advantage for the Hawks. It additionally allows them to spread open the floor, allowing a team that lacks strong shooting to have lanes to drive. Oliva did not shoot well last year, but his stroke and the green light that coach Martelli gave to him as a freshman provide hope for improvement.
Furthermore, on a team that shot a combined 32% from three in 2015-16, the Hawks only return one player who shot above 35% (Lamarr Kimble). For the most part, they primarily relied on driving and isolation plays with Bembry, and Miles. The 2016-17 Saint Joseph’s team, however, will not have those go-to scorers. Instead they will have multiple players who can get the basket. Oliva’s threat to shoot and play from the perimeter will create space for athletic wing James Demery, slashing point guard Shavar Newkirk, and heady offensive player, Lamarr Kimble. Although they will add better shooting in the form of incoming freshman Charlie Brown and an improved rising sophomore Chris Clover, Oliva’s ability to shoot because of his position will help more than them.
Unlike the guards, Oliva’s added dimension will force other team’s rim protectors out of the lane, creating space for guards to finish. Moreover, Oliva’s ability to also step into the lane and post up will be a valuable switch up. Even though adding some more bulk and fine tuning would help in that area, Oliva still has solid enough tools in the post to be a threat.
If Oliva can be a supplementary offensive option and decoy for the Hawks, Saint Joseph’s may be looking like a top team in the A-10 once again.
-Saint Joesph's loses to #25 Rhode Island in the Semifinal of the A-10 tournament