The past few years haven’t always been easy for redshirt junior Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva. The 6-foot-8 forward from Taranto, Italy, missed the 2016-17 season after having a pair of knee surgeries that summer. He played last season but was still coping with the effects of the injury and recovery.
Then, in last season’s Atlantic 10 semifinal game, he fractured his left wrist. Oliva could tell early on that something felt wrong, but he decided to play through it, knowing it could be the Hawks’ final game. The pain worsened as he cooled down after the first half, but he didn’t realize the severity of the injury until later.
“It was a tricky injury,” Oliva said. “I was only out for like three months… I was used to my knee and that took a year, almost a year and a half. Three months really felt like a walk in the park.”
In an odd twist of fate, Oliva suffered the same wrist injury that sidelined redshirt sophomore Charlie Brown, Jr., for the 2017-18 season. Brown’s recovery was harsher, but their similar experiences meant Oliva had a reference point, someone he could talk to about whatever pain or other sensations he felt.
Oliva was fully cleared in July and began playing with the Italian National Experimental Team in early August. The transition was difficult, given that Oliva was still healing. His range of motion felt limited and he had to wear a wrist guard.
Despite the scramble to get back to form, his time with his national team was an invaluable experience for Oliva. He was one of 16 players selected to the squad, and one of only two who had played collegiately in the United States.
“I definitely got back to my game,” Oliva said. “It taught me a lot about skill, while here it’s more about physicality. I feel like it was a good mixture… I was playing with older guys, and… all of them play pro right now. There’s less room for mistakes, so you definitely get more responsibility.”
The experience also helped Oliva focus more on details of the game, particularly in avoiding turnovers, which were problematic for him at times last season.
Despite the turnovers, Oliva improved in the 2017-18 season in nearly every statistic. He led the team in blocks, played more minutes than his freshman season, and improved his three-point shooting percentage from .302 to .328.
Oliva also improved his field goal percentage by over 100 points, and nearly doubled his rebounds and assists per game from his freshman season, ending the season as the Hawks’ leading rebounder.
So, what was the secret to Oliva’s improvement? There wasn’t one.
“Honestly, I can’t tell you I was focusing on anything last season,” Oliva said. “It was mostly about getting back here. I was really focused on getting back on the court after a whole year. I didn’t feel great at times, but I didn’t let that stop me. I just wanted to play.”
During his freshman season, he occasionally felt like something was off in his knee, but he was never in pain. When he heard a pop in his knee the following summer, he knew something was wrong. There was a hole in his cartilage, which most likely stemmed from a chronic condition.
It wasn’t an easy injury to come back from. Oliva got his second surgery about a month and a half after the first. He was on crutches for two and a half months and needed to have a machine move his leg to avoid scar tissue forming.
“Then, after that, you slowly start walking again, but it’s weird because my knee was still very swollen,” Oliva said. “I honestly forgot how to walk at some point. It was just weird putting the weight on my leg. Then, for two or three months, it was mostly just exercises to rebuild the muscle because I basically had no muscle any more. Then, for three more months, it was mostly stuff where I was trying to get my balance and place my feet right, and then a couple more months starting to get the motion of running back and jumping a little bit.”
Last season had its ups and downs for Oliva. He was frustrated by roadblocks he faced, though still grateful he was able to continue playing basketball at a high level.
Even coming into the 2018-19 season, Oliva was focused on getting his leg back to 100 percent. The good news: He felt better at the start of this season than he did at the beginning of last season. The better news: Since his leg wasn’t bothering him as much, he could focus on specific aspects of his game this offseason.
“My shot, and my attention to detail, that’s what I got from [playing with the Italian National Experimental Team] back home,” Oliva said. “I still work on every part of my game. My post game, I feel like, has gotten a lot better. I’m getting some touches in the post now, something I didn’t do my first three years. I feel like I’ve changed my game a little bit.”
Oliva wasn’t a starter in the season opener, but he was a driving force in the victory, notching his first career double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds. With his leg feeling better, focused offseason training, and experience with the Italian National Experimental Team, he’s set to have a big year.
The road here hasn’t been easy, but Oliva is determined to help the team win and be the best he can.
“I feel like I’m a silent leader,” Oliva said. “Guys know that I’m probably not going to be the one screaming, but I always try to tell them what I see… They know I’m going to give 100 percent all the time.”