Federiko Federiko’s journey to Pitt began with a promise from Panthers’ assistant coach Jason Capel.
“When I started recruiting Federiko in Junior College, one of the things that we talked about was, being that he moved to the states from Helsinki [Finland] in high school, his family doesn’t get a chance to come over often,” Capel told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “One of the things I told him was, I would love to meet your parents, I would love to see where you are coming to our university from.”
Capel — the younger brother of head coach Jeff Capel — recruited Federiko out of Northern Oklahoma (Junior College) along with the rest of the Pitt staff. On April 11, 2022, Federiko de-committed from Pitt’s rival, West Virginia, and was back on the board for the Panthers. Just days later, Capel and the rest of the staff hosted him for a visit. Once April 21st came around, Federiko announced his pledge to join the Panthers.
“So, one of the things that I would do, was, I gave him my promise that if he came here, if he committed to Pitt, signed with Pitt, one of the things that I would do is the first time I got an opportunity, I would fly over to Finland to see him, see his family, sit down, break bread, and just spend time to get to know the player and his family much more than just what you see, number 33, running up and down the court, blocking shots and dunking,” Capel added. “To get to know him on a very personal level.”
The 6-foot-11 big man initially came in as John Hugley’s backup at the five spot for the Panthers. Hugley was coming off of an All-ACC Honorable Mention reward for his stellar sophomore season, and Federiko was coming off of a strong year in the JuCo ranks.
However, his role quickly shifted from backup five to starting five for the Panthers when Hugley’s knee injury held him out of the first few games of the year. At this point, not many people outside of the program knew what to expect out of the Finnish sophomore who was called upon to fill Hugley’s shoes inside.
“I didn’t see it [coming], because I didn’t think we would need it,” Capel said about Federiko’s instant impact as a sophomore. “We had a pretty good big guy in-house that was coming off a really, really good season a year before. But what I did see [in Federiko] was a kid that was very athletic, that was long, that was active, that could really defend. and could play well above the rim. What I got to know about him, is — from the time he got here — how good of a kid he is, number one, and just how much he wants to learn.”
Federiko started game one of the season, scoring 13 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the Panthers’ win over UT Martin. After hauling in six rebounds and scoring five against West Virginia in game two, Federiko then struggled to produce as much as Hugley returned to the five spot for eight games. However, against Sacred Heart, Federiko stepped up with a 17-point outburst, hitting seven of his ten shot attempts and grabbing a game-best 14 rebounds. The Panthers had found something special down low — a big that could rim-run and work in perfect unison with its powerful, high-scoring guards.
“He never runs from work, he works his tail off before practice, after practice, wants to get in extra work,” Capel added about Federiko. “So, you understood that you have a guy that is that size, with that athleticism, that timing, things of that nature. If they’re not afraid to put in the work, they have an opportunity to get better at a pretty rapid rate. I think Fede has benefitted from opportunity. You look at the beginning of the season to what he became as the year went on, it was opportunity. Coming in, thinking he was going to be a backup, and then, ok, now we need you to be a starter, and we really need you to be a really good starter. So just his confidence, trusting the reps with Coach [Tim] O’Toole, trusting his teammates, his teammates developing trust in him, and understanding what his role is.”
The Panthers’ big man went on to start 27 games in his rookie year with the team — averaging 6.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He ranked third in the ACC with 1.66 blocks per game, logging 12 different games with at least three rejections. Although a devastating knee injury sidelined him for the majority of Pitt’s late-season run into the NCAA Tournament, Federiko’s sophomore year was certainly one of the brightest surprises of all within the Pitt basketball program last year. With two more years of eligibility following this past season, Federiko has set himself up for success with the Panthers going forward.
The Helsinki native returned home in late May to compete for a spot on the Finnish National Team and be with his family during the summer. With just a few weeks remaining until the Panthers all returned to campus, Capel saw the opportunity to fulfill his promise and visit Federiko in mid-June. After taking off on June 15, he landed in Helsinki on the 16th with NBA All Star and Finland native Lauri Markkanen on his flight as well.
On day one, Capel and Federiko took the train into the center of Helsinki and explored the city together. Federiko showed his coach where he went to school, where he played basketball, and where he grew up.
“First of all, the thing that I had to learn about Finland, was, the sun never went down,” Capel said with a smile. “The sun never went down. So I never knew what time it was if I wasn’t looking at my iPhone or looking at my watch. It’d be 12 o’clock at night and the sun is still up, or hasn’t set. So it took time to really understand. I wasn’t sleepy, I wasn’t really tired, because again, you have sun beaming down on you at all times of the day.”
On day two of his journey, Capel walked from his hotel to the nearby Finnish National Olympic Training Center, where Federiko was practicing with the Finland National Team and competing for the Susijengi Rising Stars. For just over one month, Federiko had been home in Finland, working with coach Hanno Mottola — a former NBA player from the country — and the Finnish National Team. Capel added that the Pitt staff has been in touch with Mottola throughout the summer, and that he was happy to get the chance to watch the team practice with his own eyes on his trip.
“The basketball part, to be honest, it wasn’t much different from what we do,” Capel went on. “I’m watching Federiko practice, and I’m looking, and it’s a lot of the things that we work on as a team. It’s the first time that I had seen him run, really, since, if you remember, he got hurt in the second half of the ACC Tournament against Georgia Tech. So it’s the first time I’ve seen him run, first time I’ve seen him jump. So to see him be just as good laterally, to see him healthy, running up and down, catching lobs, dunking, blocking shots, guarding ball screens, that was great. But their level of basketball is very high.”
After taking in some Finnish hoops and catching up with his now-healthy big man, on the third day of the trip, Capel went and had dinner with the Federiko family.
“His father cooked and his mom came home and joined in,” Capel said. “His sister is 14 years old, she was there. Dad pulled out some photo albums, so I got to see some old, young pictures of a young Federiko. I promised him I wouldn’t post them, I promised him I wouldn’t show his teammates until he gets back without his permission, but, some really cool pictures. Just a really cool experience seeing how thankful his parents are for his journey. Federiko has an incredible story. From his family having to escape Sudan, move on to Cairo, and then basically seek refuge in Finland. To see his family, spend time with them, talk to them, break bread with them, was really special.”
One week after Capel returned home from his three-day trip to Finland, Federiko said goodbye to his family and hopped on a flight back to Pittsburgh. Capel said that the big man is scheduled to arrive in Pittsburgh on Monday evening and should join the team shortly after in its preparation for next season.
As he looks back on his now-fulfilled promise to his young big man, Capel says with pride, “It was important for me. As a man, you give your word, you keep your word.”
Watch the full interview with Capel below.