No Ifs, Ands or Mutts about it: Justyn Mutts is the ACC’s most indispensable player

Justyn Mutts is back. For Virginia Tech basketball and head coach Mike Young, this is worthy of much excitement.

The offseason headlines for NBA Draft decisions within the ACC centered on a few different items. North Carolina will return four starters from this season’s Final Four squad: Armando Bacot, RJ Davis, Caleb Love and Leaky Black. NC State’s Terquavion Smith shined in his rookie season, and at the Draft Combine, yet he elected to return for his sophomore year. Duke’s Trevor Keels waited until deadline day before reaffirming his decision to remain in the draft. Florida State 7-footer John Butler did the same. Isaiah Wong of Miami, who will be back for his senior season, made offseason noise when he entered the transfer portal, too, due to frustration with his current NIL deal.

Underneath all of that, the decision from Mutts to withdraw from the draft and return to Blacksburg garnered less league-wide fanfare. However, another season of Mutts is absolutely massive for the defending ACC champs. Mutts is a ubiquitous talent, who led Virginia Tech in a variety of statistical categories last season: assist rate (22.4 percent), offensive rebound rate (10.2 percent) and defensive rebound rate (21.2 percent).

As one of the more potent team defenders in the country, Mutts also ranked second among VT’s rotation players in both block rate (3.7 percent) and steal rate (2.5 percent).

During the 2021-22 season, only six Division I players recorded the following: 20.0 percent assist rate, 20.0 percent defensive rebound rate, 10.0 percent offensive rebound rate, 2.0 percent steal rate and 2.0 block rate. Mutts was one of the six, along with NBA Draft prospects Trevion Williams (Purdue), Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Louisiana Tech) and Orlando Robinson (Fresno State).

With Mutts back, Virginia Tech has its catalyst and, despite a good bit of roster turnover, a chance to content in the ACC and make the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.

New Running Mate Up Front for Justyn Mutts

The Hokies will return only one other starter along with Mutts, although it’s a good one to have back in Blacksburg: veteran wing Hunter Cattoor (career 41.6 3P%), one of the top movement shooters in recent ACC history.

After three years with Virginia Tech, All-ACC big man Keve Aluma entered the 2022 NBA Draft. Following a strong showing at the 2022 PIT, Aluma announced his decision to remain in the draft, too. The departure of Aluma means the end of one of the more productive partnerships in all of college basketball: Mutts and Aluma.

According to Pivot Analysis, Mutts and Aluma played 1,349 minutes together the last two seasons. Virginia Tech was +241 in those minutes. In both seasons, the Hokies posted a net rating above +10.0 points per 100 possessions with Mutts and Aluma on the floor together.

Minutes+/-Offensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating

As Virginia Tech won four straight games up in Brooklyn to claim the 2022 ACC title, the Hokies were a combined +43 in 93 minutes with Mutts and Aluma on the floor together at the ACC Tournament.

During his time in Blacksburg, close to 76 percent of Aluma’s total minutes came with Mutts on the floor, too. Over his first two seasons with Virginia Tech, Mutts played 1,727 minutes: 78.1 percent of his total minutes came with Aluma on the court as well.

To help replace Aluma, Virginia Tech brought in Wright State transfer Grant Basile, a stretch-4/5 who offers similar multi-level offense, as both a scorer and a distributor. If Mutts and Basile land on the same wavelength (I’m bullish of this happening), then Virginia Tech once again will have a frontcourt that can create mismatches on offense and play tic-tac-toe with a web of interior passes.

Postman Gets Assists

One of the things that made Aluma and Mutts such a dynamic duo was their ability to pass from all levels of the floor. During their two seasons together, Aluma posted an assist rate of 14.7 percent, while Mutts recorded a combined assist rate of 19.7 percent.

Cross screen for a Mutts post-up; when the double team arrives, drop it to Aluma. Rinse and repeat.

Not only that: Mutts and Aluma played together with brilliant chemistry. Those two viewed basketball through a similar lens, which produced some of the most exquisite post-to-post passing in college basketball.

This Virginia Tech Horns set flows into empty-side handoff action with Mutts and Darius Maddox. Dane Goodwin (No. 23) does well to curtail any driving lanes for Maddox. Eventually, the possession boils down to Mutts receiving a post entry pass from Storm Murphy with 11 seconds left on the shot clock. As Mutts faces up and drives baseline, Nate Laszewski (No. 14) shows help at the rim. Aluma wisely cuts to the open real estate in front of the rim, and Mutts delivers a nifty drop-off pass for the dunk.

Next: With NC State altering its ball-screen defense, and switching 1-5, Virginia Tech scrambles the matchups on this possession. The Hokies run Horns Out action with Aluma, which turns into a handoff for Hunter Cattoor; NC State switches the action, placing Ebenezer Dowuona on Cattoor and Dereon Seabron on Aluma. As that happens, Murphy sets a rip/back screen on the weak side for Mutts, which creates another switch: Casey Morsell in the post vs. Mutts and Jericole Hellems out on Murphy. Mutts posts against the smaller Morsell; Smith shades over to double. In theory, Seabron is in good help position as the low man, but Mutts is able to see above the double team and sneak in a quick pass to Aluma for 2.

Within Mike Young’s egalitarian motion offense, balance is everything: seven rotation players averaged at least 5.0 points per game this past season, while Aluma was the only player on the roster with a usage rate above 25.0 percent.

That doesn’t happen by accident. Led by Young, there’s a system and a mentality in place with this program. Young organizes one of the most creative offensive systems in the country — loaded with dummy actions, misdirection and gobs of off-ball movement. For that to work, though, players must buy-in to the scheme and execute. They’re the ones actually working to find and exploit the pressure points. Mutts embodies this team-first, ball-movement belief.

Here’s another half-court possession vs. NC State, with the matchups a little scrambled. Virginia Tech gets into its flow and creates a hi-lo post touch for Mutts, who seals Morsell after setting a pindown for Cattoor, which NC State doesn’t switch. As Mutts receives the entry from Aluma, Cam Hayes leaves to double, immediately. This leaves one player — Seabron — alone on the back side to cover both Maddox and Murphy. Seabron, however, gets caught ball-watching and Maddox darts to the rim.

Unsurprisingly, Mutts picks out the open cutter for an easy 2.

Post Offense: Justyn Mutts

When designed sets stall out, plenty of teams will look to the pick-and-roll or iso-ball to create half-court offense. Something out of nothing, seemingly. However, when the Hokies look to randomize their attack, they have a couple of options, including playing through the post with Mutts.

Virginia Tech likes to run simple cross screen actions along the baseline to create deep post touches for Mutts. From there, Mutts can read the floor as an interior offensive hub. If he receives single coverage, Mutts can operate in the post and look for his own offense.

For his college career, going back to his time with High Point and Delaware, Mutts has connected on 56.0 percent of his two point attempts. That includes a 58.1 percent shooting clip from inside the arc while at VT.

Mutts isn’t a back-to-the-basket behemoth, but at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, he has enough size and the willingness to initiate contact in the post — along with crafty footwork. Plus, he’s patient with the basketball. If a defense lets him get comfortable, he’ll take his time vs. single coverage.

Once again, it’s the same action: Aluma pick-and-pops, Mutts comes over on the cross screen from Cattoor. Look where Mutts catches the post-entry pass; he’s only a step outside the lane vs. Duke’s AJ Griffin, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound wing and a future 2022 lottery pick. Mutts gets two feet in the paint, spins a couple of times and scores.

According to Synergy Sports, Mutt shot 51.3 percent on post-up attempts this season, scoring 0.86 points per possession. With Virginia Tech’s arsenal of perimeter shooters, that’s enough to put real pressure on the defense.

And when the defense looks to double Mutts, that second defender better disguise his movement and strike with proper angling and timing. On this possession, Griffin shades towards Mutts with a soft double; however, he arrives from one-pass away and without nearly enough force, which results in a spot-up 3 for Murphy. That’s a small mistake, but it’s all Mutts needs.

If there’s a miscue in the double-team rotations, Mutts will expose the defense: pick out the cutter for a layup or make the quick kick-out pass.

When Mutts starts to isolate in the post, weak-side coverages must be airtight. If Mutts catches an off-ball defender off his line, he’ll snap a skip pass before you can blink.

Funnel The Offense

With Young’s play-calling talents and Mutts as a post-up hub, Virginia Tech can invert its offense and run sets through the post.

Here’s a baseline out-of-bounds play, with loads of action from Virginia Tech. Nahiem Alleyne starts it by coming off staggered screens from Cattoor and Aluma. As this happens, Mutts sets a pindown for Cattoor, which NC State switches, leaving Seabron on Mutts. After throwing the inbounds pass to Alleyne, Murphy sets a back screen for Mutts, which creates another switch: Morsell on Mutts, Seabron on Murphy. This, however, flips into screen-the-screener (STS) action for VT: as Mutts collects the post-entry pass, Murphy darts up off a pindown from Aluma; NC State’s defense isn’t prepared.

Here’s another example: once again, as Aluma pick-and-pops with Murphy, Cattoor sets the cross screen for Mutts on Brady Manek. This time, though, the Hokies lined along the perimeter don’t remain static. As Mutts holds the ball, Aluma moves right and sets a throwback screen for Murphy. With Bacot in drop coverage, Aluma screens and pops out; Bacot is stuck in no-man’s land

This is simple and effective play design from Virginia Tech, picking at the conservative defensive approach from UNC. By inverting the offense, and playing through the post, the Hokies create an open kick-out 3 for their center.

Skip To My Maroon

During the 2021-22 season, the ACC was fortunate to feature a collection of excellent frontcourt connectors — forwards and centers that could work effectively in the high post as both a facilitator and a scorer.

Duke’s Paolo Banchero is a gifted 6-foot-10 playmaker with next-level court-mapping skills. Jake LaRavia burst on the scene, and flew up draft boards, as he showcased heady passing and balling-handling abilities at Wake Forest. Banchero is in his own tier, but after that Mutts was as dynamic as any other frontcourt operator in the ACC.

(There are other names worth a mention, though, including Aluma. Jayden Gardner was a bucket at the elbow for Virginia: 45.3 FG% in the midrange, 11.2 percent assist rate. Pitt’s John Hugley leveraged his post-up gravity in an effort to help distribute the ball, too: 2.6 assists per 100 possessions. PJ Hall worked the elbows for Clemson as a handoff hub. At times, Jordan Usher helped unlock a mostly anemic Georgia Tech offense.)

One of the things that really pops for Mutts is his processing speed. He reads the game beautifully, gathering details and then making quick, savvy decisions. Mutts showcases this on both ends of the floor, too.

Here, the Hokies open with Elbow action for Aluma. Cattoor cuts through and Murphy comes off an empty-side handoff with Aluma, which NC State switches. As this happens, Cattoor zips off a pindown from Mutts, which NC State also switches; Seabron is now on Mutts. It actually sounds like Young, from the sideline, calls out “Post!” — instructing Mutts to get to the low block. Cattoor swings the ball from the slot to Alleyne in the corner, creating a better entry-pass angle. As soon as Mutts catches the ball, he looks opposite, and sees Dowuona — NC State’s center — drifting too far off Murphy, Virginia Tech’s point guard. It’s an easy decision from here: fire the skip pass.

Less than four seconds after Mutts receives the entry pass for his post-up, Murphy’s 3-point launch swirls through the net. That’s perfect inside-out team basketball: the ball changes sides of the floor, Virginia Tech scrambles the matchups and creates an open spot-up 3.

These post skips from Mutts don’t even need to directly result in a bucket to create value, though. Passes like this can short-circuit help defense, putting it in rotation as the offense looks to build advantage with ball movement.

For Murphy to be able to “make the extra pass” for the Cattoor corner 3: Mutts must first trigger the advantage chain with a post skip to the weak-side wing.

Team Defense

With Reece Beekman (Virginia) and Leaky Black (UNC), the ACC is home to two of the premier on-ball defenders in the country. In fact, Beekman may just be the best all-around defender in the country — period. If Beekman is in a tier of his own (hint: he is), then Justyn Mutts is as good as any other defender in the league. However, what makes Mutts special on that end of the floor is, often, what he does away from the basketball.

Mutts is a relentless team defender. He constantly hits his marks, making rotation after rotation as a back-line help defender. Rotate, tag the roller, closeout, recover, show help. Time after time, Mutts is there.

Here, NC State runs empty-corner pick-and-pop with Seabron and Hellems; Alleyne navigates the slip screen, but Aluma (worried about Hellems on the pop) offers no resistance as the screen defender. This allows Seabron — one of the premier slashers in college hoops — to turn the corner. Normally, this would result in a layup for Seabron; however, Mutts rotates as the low man and provides a sturdy, vertical contest at the rim. Seabron misses the shot and the Hokies can run 5-on-4 in the other direction.

Mutts was one of only two ACC players this past season with 2.5 percent block rate, 2.5 percent steal rate and 20.0 percent defensive rebound rate. (Malik Williams of Louisville was the other player.)

Opposing ball handlers must be aware of Mutts, even when he’s off ball; if a player dribbles in his direction, Mutts will look to dig and rip out a steal. Mutts is opportunistic in passing lanes, too. He’ll work to contest seemingly garden-variety passes along the perimeter.

Duke’s small-ball lineup looks to isolate Banchero in the middle of the floor. It’s early in the possession; Wendell Moore Jr. is a little too careless with the simple pass, one that’s made to just start the half-court action. Mutts, however, has other ideas: he pounces on the ball.

Next, Blake Wesley (No. 0) and Nate Laszewski run pick-and-pop action for Notre Dame. Cattoor and Aluma get caught between coverages; Aluma switches on Wesley, while Cattoor fights over. This leaves Laszewski open on the pop as Cattoor scrambles to recover. Meanwhile, on the weak side, Mutts and Alleyne sort through a switch when Cormac Ryan (No. 5) sets a flare screen for Dane Goodwin. As Laszewski drives to the rim, Mutts darts from the opposite wing and erases a would-be layup.

Similar to how he reads the floor as a passer on offense, Mutts constantly sorts through information as an off-ball defender. When needed, Mutts will spring into action and try to make a play. He covers ground exceptionally well, too.

Aside from his superb processing capabilities, Mutts plays with tireless energy, which is infectious for a team. It sounds cliched, but it’s impressive to see how many defensive plays Mutts is able to make by simply not giving an inch.

Over the course of a full season, that refusal to quit saves Virginia Tech’s defense its fair share of buckets. It may occur along the margins, but this type of non-stop hustle is winning basketball from Justyn Mutts.

Fight In Post

Often, Mutts is tasked with guarding opposing centers in the post. Now, most college centers aren’t that much of a threat to do damage down low vs. an adept defender like Mutts. However, the size/strength disadvantage can at times prove too much for Mutts.

Virginia’s Francisco Caffaro (No. 22) won’t be confused for Joel Embiid, but off this Blocker Mover set, he seals with deep position vs. Mutts, then spins off easily for a dunk.

That kind of stuff will happen from time-to-time. For the most part, though, Mutts is such a talented one-on-one defender, especially in tight spaces, that a post-up isn’t such a good idea. Mutts will out-work, out-flank and out-physical those matchups.

There are other times, though, when Mutts is asked to guard a truly dominant college center. Even in those situations, Mutts will hold his own.

Here’s Mutts matched up with Jalen Duren. Mutts, 23, is several years older than Duren, but the one-and-done Memphis big man is a physical freak and the No. 1 true center prospect for the 2022 NBA Draft. Still, Mutts pushes the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Duren out; he catches the entry pass with his feet kissing the arc. From there, as Duren isolates and backs down, Mutts cedes some real estate, but he creates a wall just outside the lane.

Duren’s shot comes from a tough distance; he’s also fading away on the release. This is a testament to Mutts’ compete level and positioning. Mutts stays wide, with his arms splayed out, while Duren backs down. As Duren lifts to shoot, Mutts tightens up and goes vertical with his arms. He makes Duren see and feel the contest — without fouling.

When he guards in the post, Mutts does his work early — using post-entry denials and savvy footwork to disrupt possible post touches. Once again, Mutts gets to be opportunistic when a weak post-entry pass is thrown in his direction.

On this possession, Memphis tries to set a slice/back screen on Mutts — in order to create a post touch for Duren. Mutts isn’t having it, though: he navigates over the top of the screen, then dives in front of Duren to deflect and intercept the pass.

Of course, Mutts finishes the defensive play by throwing an outlet pass to Murphy while sprawled out on the floor.

Following a missed 3-pointer from Banchero, Duke’s Mark Williams — the No. 2 true center prospect for the draft — grabs a long offensive rebound over Mutts. Williams, with his 9-foot-9 standing reach, makes himself smaller by bringing the ball down for a gather dribble. Cattoor and Mutts get back into the play; as Williams tries to power the ball back up, Mutts rejects him from behind.

This possession still results in an open catch-and-shoot 3 for Moore vs. a scrambled defense. However, Mutts still does his job — denying a high-percentage attempt from Williams, who shot 78.1 percent at the rim this season. What Mutts lacks in pure height/size as a rim protector, he makes up for with hustle and timing.

Pick-and-Roll Defense: All Of The Options

When analyzing man-to-man team defense, it’s wise to see the floor not as a series of five isolated individual matchups. Instead, focus on the defensive scheme. How does a team guard pick-and-roll? What happens when the ball screen takes place on the side of the floor? Can this team switch? When do they like to show help?

With Justyn Mutts, Virginia Tech has the ability to shape-shift and function as a rather versatile defense. The Hokies don’t force a high volume of turnovers, but they do the little things well. For instance, Virginia Tech doesn’t foul: the Hokies finished No. 60 nationally in opponent free-throw attempt rate.

Virginia Tech has good scheme versatility on defense; the Hokies move the target and force offenses to not see the same look on every possession. As a result, Virginia Tech posted back-to-back seasons with a Top 55 defense in the country, per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric.

Led by Mutts, Virginia Tech’s defense takes care of the glass and tries to push offenses into contested jump shots. During the 2021-22 season, VT ranked inside the Top 100 nationally in both defensive rebound rate (for a third straight season) and percentage of opponent field goal attempts that came on long 2s, according to Bart Torvik’s shot data.

For starters, Mutts can switch around and defend all five positions in college. Some twitchier, more deceptive guards will have him issues — just as some of the bulkier, larger centers can overpower Mutts. However, he’s a credible defender against almost any college player.

Here, North Carolina gets into its continuity ball screen offense — side-to-side ball movement, with constant empty-corner ball screens. Mutts starts by closing out on Manek (No. 45), denying a catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt in the slot. Mutts then switches on RJ Davis (No. 4), which puts the much smaller Murphy on Manek. Armando Bacot (No. 5) misses a hi-lo opportunity to Manek, which buys Mutts time: he drops down for an off-ball switch, going back to Manek and kicking Murphy out to Davis. Next, Manek lifts to set a screen for Caleb Love (No. 2), which Mutts again switches.

Love tries to isolate vs. Virginia Tech’s power forward; however, he’s unable to create separation vs. Mutts with his go-to step-back 3-point shot. In fact, Mutts blocks Love’s step-back attempt. That’s not easy.

Now, here’s Mutts on Wesley, another soon-to-be first round draft pick. With Aluma already switched on Wesley, Goodwin sets a flare screen on Aluma, which pushes Mutts to switch out on Wesley. Earlier in the game, Wesley was able to drive Mutts on a switch. This time, though, Mutts stays solid, cuts off the drive and contests a long, difficult pull-up jumper with 12 second left on the shot clock.

Within Virginia Tech’s different schemes, Mutts also has the mobility to guard to the level of the screen (but not switch), sliding with the opposing ball handler until the initial guard defender is able to recover. Here, Mutts sticks with Davis and forces a turnover.

On this possession vs. Notre Dame’s continuity ball screen offense, Mutts is at the level when Paul Atkinson Jr. (No. 20) screens for Goodwin. As Atkinson short rolls into space, Mutts recovers and intercepts the entry pass, once more.

When Young wants to dial up the pressure, including in late-clock situations, Mutts can be especially disruptive. Bacot sets this ball screen for Love with five second on the shot clock; Mutts uses the game-pressure situation and blitzes Love. Following a deflection from Mutts and a retreat from Love, UNC turns it over with a shot-clock violation.

Mutts also has the ability to guard to the level of the screen, and then drop deeper into the paint — when Virginia Tech wants to be a little more conservative. Either way, these shifting tactics further demonstrate the appeal of Mutts.

He’s a heady, versatile and aggressive defender. He hits his spots and rotates on the back side of the defense with gusto. Mutts is also an event-creator: blocking or altering shots and forcing steals.

Package that defensive impact with an unselfish, pass-happy approach on offense: Mutts is a game-changer for Virginia Tech. With his two-way talents, Mutts is one of the top team defenders in the country and a frontcourt connector that unlocks so many good things on offense.

Virginia Tech must be ready to move on from Aluma, the team’s best player the last two seasons. With Mutts back, though, along with Cattoor, Maddox and Sean Pedulla, plus an intriguing mix of newcomers, including 4-star combo guard Rodney Rice, the Hokies still have the pieces to be a power in the ACC.

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