Summer of fun: Bernardi taking advantage of first go-around on AAU circuit

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Brian Bernardi’s decision to travel with the New York Gauchos has already increased his exposure. The Xaverian rising junior has shot the lights out — his forte — in front of coaches like Roy Williams and Tom Izzo.

Bernardi described his first experience in front of such household names as “exciting” and “crazy” at the same time. But to get there was just as nerve-wracking; he had to get on a plane for the first time.

“I was nervous for both,” he joked.

His parents, Charlie and Ellen, were on that first flight, to South Carolina for Nike Peach Jam, with their son. Charlie remembered seeing Brian uncomfortably arch his back and close his eyes as the plane took off.

He hasn’t shown many nerves on the court, however, supplying the 16U Gauchos with a potent deep threat while attracting several mid-major college coaches in the process.

“Brian can shoot it from anywhere,” Gauchos coach Casey Johnson said. “He gave us that threat with the 3-ball.”

Ironically, the 6-foot-3 Bernardi feels playing with the Gauchos, who rely on a frenetic up-and-down style led by speedy point guard Jevon Thomas, has helped other areas of his game, such as his foot speed and ball handing. He has worked on creating his own shot and not relying on as many screens. Yet, his Gauchos teammates just want him to shoot more.

It’s been an eye-opening summer for the Staten Island native. Until he played at Gauchos Gym at Xaverian, Bernardi didn’t know of the city’s AAU version of Madison Square Garden. The first he heard of the renowned program was when a few of its coaches approached Bernardi following his standout freshman year at Xaverian, asking him to join them.

Bernardi has helped the Gauchos win three tournaments this summer. On Saturday, he scored seven of his 15 points in the final period of an 80-76, double-overtime thriller over Team Takeover (Washington, D.C.), sinking one clutch 3-pointer from the right corner. The Gauchos were eliminated in the Gold division quarterfinals, although Bernardi did score 11 points.

“I didn’t do it so much for recruiting,” said Bernardi, who has been offered a scholarship by Iona College and has attracted interested from Virginia, Albany and Iowa State. “I did it to play against better players and travel. I need this. It’s making me a better player.

“I couldn’t say no when they told me what they were about.”

That hunger to get better is what endears Xaverian coach Jack Alesi to Bernardi. With some players, the longtime coach said, he would worry about spending the summer playing games, and not working on their weaknesses. But he knows Bernardi won’t spend August on the beach; he’ll be in the gym perfecting his pull-up jumper and left hand.

“Brian is a throwback kid,” Alesi said. “I enjoy coaching him as much as any kid I’ve had.”

Alesi likes to make the comparison to Chris Mullin, the greatest player in Xaverian history. Not that he expects Bernardi to go on to become an All-American and enjoy a profitable NBA career, but there are similarities at this stage in that they both were deadly shooters, but also slow-footed and not as athletic as their contemporaries. Before his junior year, Mullin played for Riverside Church, much like Bernardi is doing with the Gauchos.

“Coaching him is like coaching Chris,” Alesi said. “Same work ethic, great shooter.”

It made it easier that his parents have been with him on every trip. It’s benefitted them, too.

“Our first vacation is because of him,” joked Charlie Bernardi, a retired firefighter.

The father did say it is almost too much, his son spending up to eight hours a day playing the sport. “It’s been an adventure,” he said. “He’s looking forward to August.”

Bernardi has enjoyed the long days in gyms far from home. He has seen other parts of the country, different styles of play, and adapted his own.

“It’s improved my game a lot,” he said.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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