Kassoum Yakwe still hears plenty from Cheick Diallo, even though Diallo is busy in New Orleans trying to make a name for himself with the Pelicans. They’re close, he said — theirs was a relationship forged in Mali and cemented in Centereach, of all places — and Diallo will not hesitate to get on him if Yakwe isn’t giving St. John’s basketball everything he has.
“He’s like my best friend,” Yakwe said recenlty during the Red Storm’s media day. “My dream is to be in the NBA and play basketball and have a career, so I think if I keep working hard and listening to the people who are going to lead me to the next level,” that dream can become a reality.
It’s about 7,000 miles from Mali to Long Island — half a world away in both distance and culture — and Yakwe was only 14 when he made the trip, joining Diallo at Our Savior New American. Now, the 6-7 sophomore is primed for the next phase of his journey: ushering a team out of the growing pains that stunted its 2015-16 season. And between Diallo in his ear and coach Chris Mullin working with him on his jump shot, Yakwe certainly sounds ready.
“I’m looking forward to — if they want me to be a leader, anything,” he said. “I’ll do anything to be a great teammate and make my team better in games.”
After finishing 8-24 and 1-17 in the Big East last season, Mullin and the Red Storm are hoping to capitalize on a team that finally has gotten a chance to know each other. The Storm returns sophomore guard Federico Mussini — who shot only 33.6 from the floor but sank a team-high 56 three-pointers — and center Yankuba Sima; they’ll also benefit from the presence of Tariq Owens and Marcus LoVett, who sat out last season because of eligibility requirements.
“Probably the biggest advantage is that the guys that return have an idea of what we’re doing,” said Mullin, who in his second year. “Marcus and Tariq, they have an idea of how practice goes . . . Last year, we were teaching each and every guy, every single day. The learning curve will probably be cut in half.”
St. John’s has only two eligible upperclassmen, and only one who played for the Red Storm last season in Amar Alibegovic. Which means production and leadership from young guys like Yakwe and Mussini — both of whom spent the summer working on their jumpers — is tantamount.
In Yakwe’s case, it also shows he’s trying to expand his game. Named to the Big East All-Freshman team last year, he was a defensive powerhouse, averaging 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 25 games. He also averaged 7.1 points, but most of those came from inside. Mullin has no intention of taking that away from him, but he also noted all the room opposing defenses were giving him at mid-range.
“There were a lot of players backing off of me,” Yakwe said. “So [Mullin] just told me to have confidence in my jump shot. I think I improved a lot during the summer and I hope that I can use it more in my game.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have an outstanding shooting Hall of Famer helping him, and Mullin said he’s seen improvement. They fixed some of the technical aspects of his shot, but also, he said, addressed how Yakwe viewed shooting in general.
“The biggest thing in shooting is confidence and shot selection,” Mullin said. “If you’re a decent shooter and you have confidence and you take the right shot, you’ll do OK. It’s easier said than done in competition. But he’s done a really good job and really works hard at it. He wants to improve his weaknesses. He’s an elite athlete.”
One St. John’s hopes to ride right out last year’s Dark Age.
Three to watch
Federico Mussini, 6-2, Guard, So. — Averaged 10.7 points and played all 32 games as a freshman, and had a career-high 24 points against Chaminade on Nov. 25. He made 56 threes and averaged 2.2 assists. Led the Big East from the line at 86.2 percent.
Yankuba Sima, 6-11, Center, So. — Led the team with 5.9 rebounds per game and was second in the Big East with 60 blocks. He averaged 7.6 points and notched a double-double against St. Francis on Dec. 6 (17 points, 10 rebounds).
Bashir Ahmed, 6-7, Guard/Forward, Jr. — The second-ranked JUCO transfer in the country, according to CBS Sports, Ahmed averaged 20.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists in his sophomore year with Hutchinson Community College. He earned Jayhawk Conference MVP honors and was named NJCAA All American.
All times p.m. unless noted
Nov. 11 Bethune-Cookman, 9
Nov. 14 Binghamton, 9
Nov. 18 at Minnesota, 9
Nov. 23 Michigan State (at Imperial Arena, Bahamas) 7
Nov, 29 Delaware State, 6:30
Dec. 2 at Tulane, 8
Dec. 5 CS Northridge, 6:30
Dec. 8 Fordham, 6:30
Dec. 11 LIU Brooklyn (at Barclays Center), noon
Dec. 18 Penn State (at MSG), 11 a.m.
Dec. 21 at Syracuse, 7
Dec. 29 Butler, 7
Jan. 1 at DePaul, 2
Jan. 4 Creighton, 8:30
Jan. 7 at Xavier, 2:30
Jan. 9 at Georgetown, 6:30
Jan. 14 Villanova, noon
Jan. 16 DePaul, 4:30
Jan. 22 at Seton Hall, noon
Jan. 25 at Providence, 6:30
Jan. 29 Xavier, 6
Feb. 1 Marquette, 7
Feb. 4 at Villanova, 8
Feb. 11 Seton Hall, noon
Feb. 15 at Butler, 8:30
Feb. 21 at Marquette, 8
Feb. 25 Georgetown, noon
Feb. 28 at Creighton, 8
March 4 Providence, noon