Storm Brewing: How Justyn Mutts pushes Virginia Tech to another level

Virginia Tech enters the 2021-22 season with one of the best starting lineups in the country and a surplus of two-way talent. This team is experienced, and the pieces fit together. There are a lot of reasons to buy this team as a threat to win the ACC.

Let’s take a look at the Hokies within the context of their season-opening win over Maine, led by veteran forward Justyn Mutts.


Justyn Mutts, Mr. Versatility

During his first season at Virginia Tech, Justyn Mutts may have flown slightly under-the-radar as one of the top Swiss Army Knife-type players in the ACC. Mutts really can do a little bit (or a lot) of everything, which is why it’s easy to pigeon hole him as a Glue Guy or a Role Player. To an extent, that’s understandable — given his secondary role on offense and willingness to do all of the dirty work.

However, there aren’t too many players in the ACC that can switch across and defend all five positions, rebound on both sides of the floor and score from multiple levels.

Mutts checks all of those boxes, while also providing the Hokies will bursts of offensive creation. Surrounded by shooters, Mutts allows VT to invert the offense and play out of the post.

As I’ve written before, Mutts is an excellent post-to-post passer with Keve Aluma, another versatile frontcourt stud for Virginia Tech. Those two have excellent chemistry together.

That connection cuts both ways, too. Aluma can also facilitate from the high post or low block. On this Horns/elbow duck-in set, Mutts seals and Aluma hits him for two.

Mutts, however, can operate and make plays in space from all levels of the floor. When Virginia Tech puts Mutts in space off pick-and-pop actions, he can look for his jumper — or attack the advantage as a head-up passer.

Young and Virginia Tech have some of the more creative half-court schemes in the country. That’s makes for quite the combination when blended with all of VT’s half-court spacing and passing.

On this possession: the Hokies start with a little 21 exchange — that guard-to-guard early-offense screen from Nahiem Alleyne for Storm Murphy. Over on the weak side, VT has aligns in “Strong” — staggered pindown screens. Hunter Cattoor comes off the first screen and cuts through. Mutts snaps back up off a pindown from Alleyne, and Aluma lifts to set a Fan screen for Alleyne, who is open for a second.

Mutts elects to keep it and score on his own, though.


Frontcourt Versatility

It’s fascinating to see how Young and his staff have constructed this roster. With Virginia Tech, the focus tends to land on offense and guard play/3-point shooting. Again, that’s understandable. However, that’s also too narrow of a scope with which to view this roster. Virginia Tech’s personnel is versatile and willing to dig in defensively, too.

During this possession, Maine runs Floppy — the baseline single-double down screen action. Cattoor and Alleyne stay glued to their assignments as chase defenders. When the set then morphs to empty-corner pick-and-roll, the Hokies show off their switch-ability.

Following the ball screen, Mutts switches out and slides vs. an opposing guard — with a good help effort from Aluma. On the back side, though, Cattoor — an underrated wing defender — fronts and battles on the post switch. The hi-lo option is wiped away; Mutts stays in the lane to help close off any passing window. When Maine tries to flip sides of the floor, Murphy creates a turnover.

Aluma broke out last season, his first on the floor at Virginia Tech. He evolved from a rebounder at Wofford to a hybrid frontcourt scorer and hub of offense. This was a major success for Aluma and a key win for Virginia Tech’s player development program.

Given his production as a scorer last year (15.2 points per game), Aluma’s defense went a little undersold. Aluma can block a shot (5.2 percent block rate) and moves pretty well in space.

Here’s another Floppy set from Maine. This time, though, Alleyne and Cattoor miscommunicate on the baseline off-ball switch, which puts Alleyne’s assignment in prime position: running to the corner off a pindown, with a numbers advantage. Aluma, however, reads this and quickly switches out, which takes away a possible catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.

During the Maine game, the Hokies even mixed in a little run-and-jump half-court trap, which would make Young’s old coaching buddy Roy Williams happy.

As usual, Mutts was the defensive kickstarter in this look — brilliantly deployed on a late-clock, end-of-half possession.

In terms of frontcourt personnel, Virginia Tech has as much talent as any ACC program — with the exception of Duke. The Blue Devils and the absurdly-good Paolo Banchero are in their own tier here.


No N’Guessing Game

With Aluma and Mutts, Young has two really good reasons to feel confident about his frontcourt. However, that list of reasons may expand now beyond just two; from the looks of things, the Hokies have more depth up front and a real rotation, thanks to David N’Guessan.

During the 2020-21 season, N’Guessan played in 21 of 22 games as a freshman. He was used mostly as bench depth; N’Guessan averaged under 10 minutes of action per game and scored 55 total points all season.

It’s only one game, and it came against a lesser opponent; however, N’Guessan looked awesome vs. Maine. In 18 minutes of action, the rangy 6-foot-9, 205-pound forward showed off an array of skills, including some impressive low-block footwork.

N’Guessan finished with a perfect 6-of-6 shooting line, including 5-of-5 on attempts at the rim and one 3-pointer.

This kind of short roll playmaking is super tantalizing. N’Guessan looks comfortable facing up and handling in space — from multiple levels of the floor.

These are heady, decisive moves; it’s obvious that his offensive repertoire has grown. Given his length and bounce, along with the supporting offensive talent: it seems possible that N’Guessan could be a force for the Hokies, mixing into lineups when either Mutts or Aluma need to sit.

According to Pivot Analysis, Virginia Tech outscored opponents by only four points (in 220 minutes) when Aluma sat last season, including a net rating of only +1.1 points per 100 possessions. Virginia Tech played only 81 minutes all season with both Aluma and Mutts on the bench at the same time.

It makes sense to stagger those two; however, Young has more flexibility this season. Now, with N’Guessan and John Ojiako — back after playing only six games last year due to a knee injury — the Hokies appear to have better depth up front.

Defensively, N’Guessan looked equally comfortable guarding in space, too, which gets back to the overall versatility of Tech’s frontcourt.

Keep an eye on N’Guessan here. He starts the possession by doing a nice job showing help on the initial wide pindown action. When the ball is swung out to the popping big man, N’Guessan closes out under control — no fly-by or wild contest.

N’Guessan is then able to slide with ease and stay in front of his man, taking away the baseline drive. He remains strong and vertical when the possession morphs into a post-up. Eventually, with his constant pressure, N’Guessan is able to force a turnover.

When called upon to switch, N’Guessan handled that task as well. (He knew the assignment, as the kids would say.)

It’s too early to say at this point, but N’Guessan looks like another player development win for Young and the Hokies. Over the last two years, Aluma and Cattoor has shown that this program can cultivate and development ACC-level talent.

For the last decade, Virginia and Florida State have been the ACC’s top two player-development programs. It’s getting to the point, though, where Virginia Tech requires a mention in this conversation as well.


Storm Brewin’

Prior to the 2020-21 season, I wrote about the presence of Kansas State transfer Cartier Diarra. The southpaw guard was a strong offensive talent; he offered Virginia Tech 1-on-1 perimeter shot creation. Wabissa Bede was a strong defensive point guard during his time in Blacksburg; however, he simply didn’t have the juice that Diarra could, theoretically, provide.

Diarra opted out of the season in December, though. While there were no hard feelings, it did cost Virginia Tech a game-breaker at the guard position.

Young is one of the top in-game schemers in college hoops. While utilizing off-ball actions — run for dynamic movement shooters, like Cattoor and Alleyne — and low-post facilitation (courtesy of Mutts and Aluma), the Hokies built a top-60 offense, per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric.

For example: Look at VT’s spacing on this baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) play. It’s a 1-4 look; Alleyne and Cattoor start the possession in opposite corners, with their Nikes nearly kissing the sidelines. Murphy passes the ball in and exits to the strong-side corner, which helps open open the weak side of the floor for Mutts and Cattoor.

Cattoor rejects the initial pindown from Mutts — a stable of Young’s offense — only to then revert and come off a re-screen (Ricky) from Mutts. This drags two defenders out on Cattoor and now Mutts is open on the roll. This is wonderful half-court offense from an out-of-bounds look.

Plenty of programs would kill to have that type of balanced offensive synergy. However, it felt like there was another level for this program to hit in terms of its offensive ceiling. This is why the addition of Murphy was so critical.

Murphy, who played under Young for two seasons at Wofford, looked good in his debut. He’s an excellent 3-point shooter (41.7 3P% career), so he helps space the floor when he’s off ball. Murphy is also a good movement shooter, who can let it fly coming off a pindown. He fits the scheme perfectly.

However, Murphy is also a strong offensive initiator — independent of scheme. His ability to orchestrate easy offense out of spread pick-and-roll is exactly what this team needed.

Aluma and Mutts are dangerous offensive pieces after the screen; they can pop for jumpers, roll to the rim for dunks or short roll into space and look to pass. Pair that with a creator like Murphy — and excellent wing shooters to space the floor — and there’s a recipe for success in Blacksburg.

Muprhy misses here, but this is is the type of possession that should keep some ACC coaches up at night. If Murphy can consistently get downhill like this, and into the paint, then it’s going to be a massive challenge to defend this team.

Defenses can’t take away everything. The more shooting on the floor, the more strenuous those challenges become, too. If Murphy provides VT with a reliable north-south drive game, then it’s going to be really easy for the Hokies to bend opposing defenses and get them into rotations. In the gaps of those rotations, Virginia Tech will pounce.

This is where Young deserves additional credit. Some of the best coaches in the country are at the top of their craft due to the abilities to empower their players. Alabama’s Nate Oats catches a lot of praise; so, too, does Juwan Howard at Michigan. It’s no surprise to see those two programs humming, right now — in terms of both  recruiting and on-court output.

Young is doing this, too. You can see him on the sideline encouraging his team to run or let go of a mistake. You can see him tell his guards to keep shooting after they miss an early-offense 3-pointer. That stuff matters, and it’s one of the many reasons I’m bullish on Virginia Tech — this season and beyond.


Set Of The Season, So Far

Young is one of the more talented offensive minds and play-designers in college basketball. Right before halftime vs. Maine — with 4.3 seconds remaining — Young dialed up a gem from a sideline out-of-bounds (SLOB) play.

I’m not sure what Virginia Tech refers to this as, but I’m calling this quick-hitter: SLOB Line Veer Pindown.

To start the play, the Hokies stack up in a four-person line, elbow to elbow across the foul line; Murphy is the trigger man on the inbounds pass.

Alleyne launches the action by clearing to the strong-side corner, while Cattoor comes up to receive the inbounds toss. As that happens, Aluma lifts as if he wants to set a ball screen for Cattoor. However, instead of screening for Cattoor, Aluma veers out and sets a pindown screen for Murphy. Due to the veer action (Aluma’s fake ball screen), Maine’s defense is caught off its line; two players are in position to defend a pick-and-roll action that was never going to happen.

On the back side of the play, it becomes a mini 2-on-1 with Aluma setting the pindown for Murphy. There are no help defenders present; if Aluma sets a good screen, Murphy will get a good shot and have time to get it off. This is just beautiful offensive geometry from VT.

Here’s one more banger drawn up by Young. It’s another BLOB 1-4 set; this time, however, the four players on the floor are all lifted up to the level of the free throw line (15 feet).

Alleyne starts things by crashing in; it looks as though VT will run staggered screens for N’Guessan to come get the ball. Instead, N’Guessan crashes down off a screen from Alleyne — essentially working as a decoy. Alleyne quickly snaps back to the corner off a screen from Ojiako: screen-the-screener action, which produces a movement 3 for one of the top shooters in the country.

That’s simply gorgeous quick-hitting timing and rhythm from a team that looks ready to roll this season.


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