Courtside: From Mali to the Mecca

Carmine Carcieri, Assistant Sports Editor

Since the day Chris Mullin accepted the St. John’s head coaching position, the Hall of Famer has preached the idea of landing the top talent in New York in order to rebuild a program that has struggled to live up to expectations the past few years.

Kassoum Yakwe, a four-star prospect, may not be a native of New York but he played his high school ball at Our Savior New American High School in Centereach, N.Y. and considers the city to be his second home.

“It’s kind of like home,” Yakwe said with a big grin when asked about why he chose St. John’s at the team’s media day. “They have a great coaching staff. I came here for a visit, and I saw how well they organized the program. I also like the style of play.”

The 6’7” freshman power forward first started his athletic career playing soccer in his native Mali but wanted to commit himself to a new game at a young age.

He fell in love with basketball in 2010, as one coach was impressed with his height and athleticism, granting him the opportunity to play organized basketball for the first time.

Yakwe caught on as a member of Mali’s U16 National Team at age 14 and was able to improve his skills enough in order to come over to the United States in 2012 to play for Our Savior New American High School.

The power forward averaged 10 points and five rebounds per game as a senior and shared the court with Kansas commit Cheick Diallo, Pittsburgh recruit Damon Wilson and Oklahoma State talent Davon Dillard, among others.

“It was a great experience,” Yakwe said when asked about his time in high school. “I played with some great players and being around them and learning from them was a lot of fun.”

“Cheick is my best friend because I knew him before I came [to the United States] and we played on the National Team together. I learned a lot from him. He played hard and when I didn’t play hard he would pick on me and make fun of me. So, that’s someone I’ve always looked up to.”

Yakwe also played for the PSA Cardinals and head coach Terrence Williams on the AAU Circuit. Playing for the major AAU program was another opportunity for the forward to expand his basketball knowledge with high level players, including 2016 Harvard commit Bryce Aiken, 2016 Virginia prospect Ty Jerome, 2016 UMass guard Unique McLean and future Villanova star Omari Spellman.

“They really liked my game and my effort,” Yakwe said of the PSA Cardinals program. “You will always play hard around Coach Williams because he will motivate you and he will teach you how to be a great player. He’s going to tell you if you really want to play basketball at a high level, you need to be confident, practice every day and get better.”

Yakwe dominated the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League Circuit this past summer, winning Defensive Player of the Year, All-Tournament Second Team honors at the EYBL Peach Jam, and was selected to a five member 2015 SLAM magazine Summer All-American Team.

The Mali native averaged 9.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.0 blocks and shot 67.9 percent from the field in five games during the Peach Jam Tournament.

His breakout summer caught the attention of multiple high-major schools, including Kansas, Louisville, Maryland, Oregon, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, UNLV and Villanova; but, ultimately, the talented prospect chose St. John’s.

Now, the freshman is under the tutelage of Chris Mullin, who is trying to help Yakwe develop his offensive game while also maintaining his effectiveness and pride defensively.

Yakwe’s long wingspan, impressive hops and assertiveness on the defensive end of the floor are major strengths that helped land the power forward in ESPN’s top 100 recruiting list for the class of 2015.

“Defense comes first,” he said. “I’m still working on my offense. So when I don’t do well offensively, I am able to focus in defensively and help my team.”

“I am also working on my dribbling with Coach Mullin and he’s really helping me with my shot. It’s already gotten a lot better and my free throw shooting has also come a long way since I came to campus.”

While Yakwe’s role on the team is up in the air for the 2015-16 season due to NCAA eligibility rules, there is no doubt his game will continue to improve and that he will have a major impact in the years to come at St. John’s.