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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Tuesday / November 21.
  • How St. John’s landed Italian sensation Federico Mussini

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    NEW YORK— Italian sensation Federico Mussini is arguably St. John’s best player at the moment and a key component of coach Chris Mullin’s vision for the future.

    Entering Saturday’s Big East game at Marquette, the 6-foot-1 freshman guard is leading St. John’s (7-9, 0-3 Big East) in scoring at 13.1 points per game and ranks second in assists at 2.5 even though he is essentially playing out of position at point guard because freshman Marcus LoVett was deemed a partial qualifier.

    Mussini’s path to St. John’s was far from ordinary, though. His recruitment certainly didn’t unfold along traditional lines.

    In fact, when former St. John’s staffer Derrick Wrobel first began watching Mussini at the Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Mannheim Germany in April of 2014, he had to do it on the computer — not in person — because the tournament doesn’t allow college coaches. (Wrobel himself was not an assistant coach and thus wasn’t on the road recruiting.)

    “You’re not allowed to attend as a college coach, but I was able to follow that event online, and Federico played very well in the Albert Schweitzer event,” Wrobel, who is now on Bobby Hurley’s staff at Arizona State, told SNY.tv. “He just played well throughout the competition.”

    Playing for the Italian U18 team, the 6-foot-1 Mussini went for 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists in the championship game win over the United States.  He was named to the All-Tournament team after averaging 20.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.4 steals.

    “He was arguably the best player there,” Wrobel said.

    Wrobel, who had numerous contacts in Europe, proceeded to go to then-head coach Steve Lavin and tell him about Mussini.

    “I brought his name to Lav and told him, ‘This is the kid that we think can really help us,'” Wrobel recalled. “‘He’s really talented. He’s got a skillset and he’s interested in coming to college. Obviously, he’s an Italian kid and [we’re] selling New York City, I think there’s a match that made sense.’ So we brought him to Lav’s doorstep and Lav started the normal recruiting process.”

    That summer, St. John’s assistant Jim Whitesell went to watch and recruit Mussini at the U18 European Championships in Konya, Turkey, while Lavin watched current St. John’s sophomore Amar Alibegovic in Bosnia. Mussini averaged Mussini averaged 22.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals at that event.

    Other schools like Gonzaga and Davidson were also interested in Mussini, but the key question was whether the kid would choose to come to America for school or opt to play professionally in Europe with his club team, Reggio Emilia. The club did eventually make a multi-year offer.

    “We just felt like college would be beneficial for him,” Wrobel said. “We knew that there would be a contract offer from overseas. We knew that it was coming….We always knew that that would be a threat, in terms of him staying home and signing a multi-year deal. And he’s really close with his family.”

    Lavin and St. John’s, along with other schools, continued to recruit Mussini throughout the 2014-15 season as his role increased with Reggio Emilia.

    At one stage that fall, Lavin watched Isaiah Briscoe at Roselle Catholic and then flew out to Italy to see Mussini and his family.

    “Lav went to see Isaiah Briscoe work out and he flew out of Newark to Milan,” Wrobel said.

    Lavin envisioned a new four-guard rotation involving Briscoe, Mussini, Brandon Sampson and Rysheed Jordan. (Briscoe chose Kentucky over St. John’s and UConn in November 2014, Sampson decommitted and is now at LSU and Jordan left St. John’s and was recently waived by his former NBA D-League team.)

    “Right now the kid [Mussini] is playing a little bit out of position,” Wrobel said. “He’s a scoring guard who’s even better when he’s playing with a guard like Briscoe, a guard who can dribble-penetrate and kick out to guy like Federico, so yeah, the idea was for them to play together.”

    In 2015, Mussini was invited to play for the World Select Team in the Nike Hoop Summit alongside players like Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray, who went off for 30 points in the World Team’s win over the United State. Mussini scored 9 points and dished out 3 assists in the win.

    (Simmons, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, also took an unofficial to St. John’s in 2012.)

    Heading into the Hoop Summit, St. John’s was concerned that Mussini’s recruitment would blow up but felt they had put in the work in advance.

    “We knew that he would likely be invited to the Nike Hoop Summit, which would elevate his stock even more,” Wrobel said. “Gonzaga was in the conversation so it really came down to Gonzaga [and St. John’s]. Our intent was to get as much done before the Hoop Summit when all these people were able to see him.

    “We were able to lock in the visit [to campus] before everything went South with coach.”

    Of course, Lavin and his staff were let go at the end of March, ushering in the Mullin Era. Mullin quickly hired Matt Abdelmassih and Barry “Slice” Rohrssen to his staff, while keeping graduate assistant Luca Virgilio, an Italian who was involved in Mussini’s recruitment on staff.

    “Getting a guard was very important for us,” Abdelmassih said on Friday. “We knew there was a limited amount of players left who fit our program. Federico came up in our conversations because of our graduate assistant, Luca Virgilio, who is from Rome. He had a relationship with Federico. Federico felt comfortable and Luca made the transition the easiest.”

    On his way back to Italy from the Hoop Summit, Mussini then visited Mullin and the new staff at St. John’s.

    In June, Mussini finally committed.

    Fast forward a few months and Mussini has seemingly taken over as the guy the Red Storm look to for a big shot in clutch situations, as evidenced by his performance during St. John’s 74-66 loss to Xavier on Wednesday.

    After trailing by 12 points with eight minutes left against the 10th-ranked Musketeers, Mussini buried a quartet of three pointers, each deeper than the last, to turn the near-blowout into a one possession nail biter with just two minutes to play.

    “Federico is the type of guard you want in your program,” Abdelmassih said. “He doesn’t back down. He rises to every challenge and is a high level competitor. His ability to make plays is only going to improve. He has unlimited range and is an elite shooter.”

    But a seasoned veteran he is not, as the Italian product picked up a backbreaking technical foul 30 seconds later for slamming the ball on the floor after an official whistled teammate Durand Johnson for a reach.

    Xavier’s Myles Davis knocked down both free throws, effectively killing the Red Storm’s momentum heading into the game’s final seconds.

    Mussini admirably took responsibility for his actions in the postgame press conference, admitting it was a lapse of judgement that won’t happen again. Fellow guard Ron Mvouika absolved Mussini of blame, saying the freshman’s barrage of threes was the biggest reason the Red Storm were in the game late.

    “Don’t be upset. That’s not where the game went wrong,” Mvouika told Mussini. “He’s going to make mistakes but I’m proud of him. The shots he made today, that’s what he does.”

    Said Mussini: “We practice hard every day and we’re seeing the results. We didn’t get a win but we’re improving every day. I think we’re going to be really good. We just need to keep going this way and never give up.”

    Mullin concurred, saying both the clutch threes and killer mental mistakes will only help his young point guard grow as the season and his collegiate career continues.

    “All these experiences are going to be good for him,” Mullin said. “I’ve played enough games and sat through enough losses and enough wins to know this is how you develop.”

    But Mullin said Mussini will truly be able to flourish once reinforcements arrive in the form of LoVett Jr., who is sitting out this season after being ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA, and 2016 signee Shamorie Ponds, two players that can take pressure off the Italy native.

    St. John’s also has a pledge from junior college wing Bashir Ahmed and is recruiting 2016 New York native Rawle Alkins and 2016 big man Thon Maker. They hope to add at least one of those two to a core including Mussini, Yankuba Sima, Malik Ellison and Kassoum Yakwe.

    “Some players don’t play better with other players,” Mullin said. “[Mussini] is the type of guy that will because he has a high IQ, great basketball skill and some limitations. When you put the pieces around, you can hide those limitations and play to your strengths.”

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.