A unique path led Justyn Mutts to Virginia Tech and Blacksburg, Va.
A former player at High Point and Delaware, Mutts chose the Hokies in the summer of 2020 having never visited Blacksburg or met the coaching staff. Since his arrival, he’s found a home.
South New Jersey Star And The Road To High Point
Raised in Millville, N.J. with six siblings, Mutts discovered his love for basketball at a young age. He played every sport he could growing up, including football, soccer and baseball, a game he was admittedly bad at. Around eight years old, he was the tallest person in his city for his age. That meant a bunch of opportunities on the basketball court.
With his dad, Jarett – who played basketball for Rutgers-Camden – pushing him to get better, he found his passion for the game. He stuck with the sport, which opened up plenty of doors.
Mutts attended St. Augustine Prep, a private all-boys Catholic high school just outside of Millville. In four years with the Hermits, Mutts blossomed. He finished his career with 1,389 points and won three Cape-Atlantic League titles, along with two state championships in 2016 and 2017.
As a senior, Mutts averaged 12.4 points, seven rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Colleges took notice. At 6-7, 215, ESPN listed him as the fifth-best prospect in the state of New Jersey, while 247 Sports had him as a three-star and the eighth-best prospect in the state.
Mutts had anywhere from 20-25 offers, including most of the Atlantic 10: St. Joe’s, La Salle, Dayton, Richmond, VCU and St. Louis. He didn’t choose that route, though. Instead, an official visit to High Point of the Big South in Aug. of 2016 swayed his interest, and he committed to the Panthers on Sept. 1.
“It was tough trying to narrow that down and decide what school was the best for me,” Mutts said. “In all honesty, I would say insecurity [led to choosing High Point]. I had probably 20-25 offers and High Point was probably the lowest school to offer me at the time. To be completely honest with you, I didn’t feel as if I could go to any of the other schools and really make an impact. No confidence.”
Mutts started 19 of High Point’s 28 games that season. After averaging six points, four rebounds, shooting 54% and recording a team-high 32 blocks, he was named to the Big South All-Freshman Team.
Another Change Of Scenery
Mutts wasn’t content after his freshman year, however, and decided to transfer. He chose Delaware and head coach Martin Ingelsby. He was in a competitive conference, the CAA, and at a school just over an hour from home on the other side of the Delaware River.
After sitting out in 2018-19 because of the NCAA’s transfer rules, Mutts exploded for the Blue Hens the following season. He started 32 of Delaware’s 33 games and was second on the team in scoring (12.2 ppg). He led the Blue Hens in rebounding, averaging 8.4 boards per game, and finished the year with 11 double-doubles, third-most in the CAA.
Alongside guard Nate Darling, a former DeMatha Catholic product (subtle Mike Jones reference), Mutts helped lead Delaware to a 22-11 record (11-7 CAA) and a fourth-place finish in the league. The Blue Hens fell just two games short of the NCAA Tournament, losing to top-seeded Hofstra in the CAA Tournament semifinals.
Over the course of the season, though, Mutts showed how valuable he was as a player. He scored a career-high 30 points in a two-point win at Hofstra and grabbed 13 rebounds. After posting a combined 38 points and 26 rebounds in back-to-back non-conference games in November, he was named the CAA Co-Player of the Week.
Off the court, Mutts studied psychology. He received his bachelor’s degree after the 2019-20 season, and he still had two years of eligibility left.
He entered the transfer portal in May of 2020 and started contacting coaches, trying to find his next home.
“I left Delaware because I graduated after three years, I had my bachelor’s degree,” Mutts said. “I wanted to be able to challenge myself in the best conference there was against some of the best schools, biggest-name schools: Duke, North Carolina. To be able to put myself in that position against great players was definitely something I was looking for.”
Finding A Home At Virginia Tech
It wasn’t a normal offseason for Mutts, nor anyone in the country. The pandemic altered everything, and it wasn’t an easy time to get up and move.
Mutts spoke with a variety of coaches, including staffs at Houston and Mississippi State. Those two schools, along with Virginia Tech, comprised his final three.
After just one season in Blacksburg, Mike Young and his staff made a connection with Mutts. He took a risk and committed to the Hokies without ever visiting, but he trusted the relationships he built.
“I didn’t get to meet anybody in person,” Mutts said. “The coaching staff called me on the phone and stuff like that. … It’s tough visiting a school through Zoom. You kind of have to rely on the guys being genuine to you through the process, but all of our coaches are such genuine guys that it was really easy to get there and get to know them.”
Mutts didn’t want a coach that would lie to him just to entice him. He didn’t want anything flashy, either. He just wanted to find a group that he could trust that believed in him.
“I wasn’t looking for a dream, I wasn’t just looking for somebody to just tell me what I wanted to hear,” Mutts said. “I wanted to hear truth, I wanted someone to be genuine with me and tell me what they really saw. That’s what these coaches did with me, and they’ve given me nothing but opportunities since I’ve been here.”
His adjustment to Blacksburg wasn’t easy. Being in quarantine in a new place, Mutts found things to keep himself busy. He learned how to cut his own hair, which he claims is easier than people think, and he started meditating, which he does every day.
Meditation helped clear his mind and helped him focus, both on and off the court. At a time when he couldn’t go out and be around people, he found tranquility in relaxation.
“Honestly, I found peace in quarantine,” Mutts said. “I found peace in Blacksburg. That’s the most beautiful thing to me about it.
“I just focused on what I could do, and it’s not even just about meditating; it’s about understanding that a lot of the thoughts you’re having, they’re limiting beliefs, and it’s about letting go of limiting beliefs and getting new ones. Affirmations and stuff like that. Repeating them to yourself, telling yourself who you really think you are.”
A Difference-Maker On The Court
In mid-October in Charlotte at the ACC Tipoff, Mike Young said that Mutts, in many ways, was the key to Virginia Tech’s success in 2020-21.
Playing alongside Wofford transfer Keve Aluma, Mutts thrived last year with the Hokies.
He averaged 9.5 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 51% from the field. He started every game except the season opener against Radford, too.
Young & Co. have even higher expectations for Mutts this year, however, in large part because he’s grown so much over this past offseason. That includes his attacking prowess and three-point shooting (he shot 33% from deep last season), as well as his defense. Young mentioned earlier this offseason that Mutts can guard one-through-five, which gives the Hokies an advantage defensively.
“He has as high a basketball IQ as I’ve been around in 36 years,” Young said of Mutts. “He’s a dynamic athlete. He came to us as a good basketball player, but he’s grown by leaps and bounds through his game, his ability to shoot, his ability to make plays off the bounce.”
Keve Aluma, a Preseason All-ACC selection who received the second-most votes for ACC Preseason Player of the Year, said practicing against Mutts has really helped raise his game.
At the podium at ACC media day, Mutts mentioned how the team’s confidence has skyrocketed over the summer and fall. He said that’s the biggest difference between 2020-21’s version of himself and who he is as a player right now: confidence. And a lot of that boost, he said, comes from his successful meditation.
“I would say that self-work I’ve been doing, that really does come back to help you,” Mutts said. “You might not feel the benefits of meditation in that moment, but the benefits of sustaining that practice over time is something that you can implement into your life every single day. Just being mindful. I’m present, right here, right now. Nothing else.
“Just concepts like that as opposed to, ‘now I’m in the middle of a game and my mind is on a million different things because I can’t settle down, I can’t stop myself from thinking about stuff.’ It’s stuff like that that I feel like is really going to come back to pay off in the end.”
Mutts is a unique player when he’s on the court. He enjoys playing defense rather than offense, which isn’t your stereotypical answer. He said disrespect drives him, and he constantly has a desire to prove himself to himself on that end of the floor.
And one of the biggest goals for him this year: ACC First Team All-Defense.
“I would say that’s definitely one of the biggest goals for myself this year, defensively,” Mutts said. “You’re not supposed to make any promises doing stuff like this, but that’s definitely a huge focus for myself this year.
It’s shaping up to be a special season for Virginia Tech men’s basketball. Young has an experienced group – Tech will start three fifth-year seniors and two juniors with Storm Murphy, Hunter Cattoor and Nahiem Alleyne – that was picked to finish fourth in the ACC.
Mutts is at the core of it. He’s a difference-maker, like Young said, and he’s a valuable veteran on a team with high hopes. He’s found a home in Blacksburg, as well as peace and confidence.
Those factors could very well help Virginia Tech be a unique basketball team this year.
“I have the utmost confidence in my guys,” Mutts said. “I feel as though there’s nothing we can’t do. I feel like the sky is the limit for this team because of the potential, as well as the work ethic, along with the quality of their personalities. I feel like we have every piece, we’re just checking off the boxes. I feel like we’re going to be good.”