MJ Collins: How Virginia Tech’s Guard Has Burst On The Scene

MJ Collins certainly announced himself to the Virginia Tech crowd with his one-hand slam on Sunday vs. UNC. (Ivan Morozov)

As the clock closed in on 90 seconds before the end of the first half, North Carolina forward Pete Nance tried to be cheeky while executing a dribble handoff. But his behind-the-back pass fell in the hands of Virginia Tech forward Grant Basile, who found a quick outlet in MJ Collins. The true freshman sprinted down the floor, cocked his right arm back and threw down a ferocious one-handed dunk, sending the sold-out Cassell Coliseum into a frenzy.

It wasn’t the first time Collins announced himself in a Tech uniform — he had a slam in the season-opener and dunked over College of Charleston’s Babacar Faye on Nov. 20 — but it was different in front of the Cassell Guard. It was his first ACC game, too, and it came against the Tar Heels, one of the nation’s blue bloods who has six NCAA titles to its name.

“It was an unreal moment,” Collins said after the 80-72 win.

Indeed. In year four under Mike Young, the Hokies (8-1, 1-0 ACC) are in a good place. Sophomore point guard Sean Pedulla currently leads the scoring charge (16.8 ppg). Three other veterans — Justyn Mutts (14.4), Grant Basile (13.9) and Hunter Cattoor (10.1) — aren’t far behind. But the emergence of Collins through the first month of the season has been delightful.

He’s played 16-plus minutes in each of Tech’s nine games. Out of 120 minutes in close contests against College of Charleston, Minnesota and North Carolina, he’s been on the court for 67 of them. And he’s hit some big shots.

Collins knocked down a 3-pointer opposite Tech’s bench vs. UNC. At the time, Carolina was on an 8-0 run; he provided the team’s lone basket in four-and-a-half minutes. He came up clutch again with 31 seconds to play, too, draining two free throws that helped seal Tech’s victory.

MJ Collins has adapted to the college game pretty quickly. (Kate Haas)

Those weren’t his only contributions, however. He was the Hokies’ second-leading rebounder with eight against the Tar Heels, only behind Mutts (11). And he finished with five offensive boards, one more than North Carolina’s entire team (4).

“The eight rebounds were significant, five offensive,” Young said after the UNC win. “The three right in front of me was enormous. … I think we were up for a big shot. And then the kid from the sprawling metropolis Clover, South Carolina bangs two foul shots to help us. He’s going to be a really, really good player.”

Mutts, a sixth-year college basketball player, called Collins a “dawg.” Cattoor described him as one of the most coachable young guys he’s ever been around. It’s no surprise he’s playing at this level, but this much, and this early? He’s certainly earned it.

A 6-4, 190-pound guard, Collins was a four-star recruit out of high school by ESPN. He dreamt of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Clemson, the in-state school, was the only other team in the league that really pursued him.

At Westminster Catawba Christian School, Collins was a scorer. That’s really what defined him through the majority of his recruitment. He was an all-state and all-conference player of the year after averaging 23 points per game as a junior.

When he visited in June of 2021, Virginia Tech rolled out the red carpet. Young and the staff also showed him where he’d fit in the offense, something he said no other school really took the time to do. There was a genuine connection to Blacksburg — it felt like home — and he committed to Tech on July 4.

Yet, much changed from the time of his verbal to the time he arrived on campus over the summer. He transferred to Combine Academy in Lincolnton, N.C. for his senior year, where he was teammates with Tech center Pat Wessler. Collins also shared the backcourt spotlight with Illinois guard Jayden Epps, a top-100 recruit originally from Norfolk, Va. The team won a state title and finished 25-5, but Collins was forced to adapt.

“In high school, early on, I was a scorer,” Collins said. “I didn’t really care too much for the defensive end because I knew I had to score. My senior year of high school, roles changed. We were a powerhouse team, so I had to do other things. The ball wasn’t coming to me all the time, so I had to lock in on defense, which really translated and helped me when I got to college.

“You’ve got guys like Hunter Cattoor, Justyn Mutts, Sean Pedulla, who are going to have the ball in their hands. So finding ways to stay on the floor defensively is really the most important thing to me this year.”

MJ Collins has gotten large chunks of playing time as a freshman. (Jon Fleming)

Virginia Tech’s backcourt depth has been limited this year because top-100 recruit Rodney Rice has yet to play due to an ankle injury. In some instances, Young’s played a combination of Pedulla, Cattoor and Collins more than he’d like. But as the season’s grown older, Collins has found himself on the floor more, in many ways due to his work on the defensive end and the glass.

“He spells the first three letters of the word ‘defense’ right now,” Young said on Tech Talk Live before Thanksgiving. “Sometime soon, and he played 25 minutes against Charleston, he’s playing good minutes every night, he’s going to be a really, really good defensive player and one that we can count on in any situation.”

One of those opportunities came against the Tar Heels. With 2:05 to play and the game within single digits, Young subbed Collins in for Basile for the final stretch. He grabbed a rebound, played solid defense and hit two clutch free throws to help Tech clinch the victory, showing his reliability once again.

Yet, he’s experienced some difficult times as a freshman. His cousin, TJ Hubert, was killed on June 5 soon after he arrived in Blacksburg. The two were best friends, and they often discussed him going to Tech and Hubert making trips to visit. Collins plays every game in TJ’s honor.

“He’s really who I say I do it for,” Collins said. “I miss him. Every game I go out there, I’m playing for him.”

Thankfully, he has a strong support system to lean on. He lives with Darren Buchanan Jr., Rice and Wessler, Tech’s three other true freshmen. And it’s about a 3:15-minute drive for his parents, Michael and Jimia, to drive up and visit from Clover. He and his family group FaceTime almost every day, and they’re always making sure he’s doing well. His roommates, too, are some of his best friends, and they always make sure to keep a smile on his face.

The upperclassmen — Mutts, Cattoor and Darius Maddox among them — have also taken him under their wing. Cattoor said Collins is always asking questions and isn’t hard-headed, unlike a lot of freshmen.

MJ Collins is going to be a great player for Mike Young and Virginia Tech. (Ivan Morozov)

“He understands he’s going to make mistakes,” Cattoor said. “But he stays humble and asks questions and he fights and comes to practice every day trying to get better. And I think throughout the season, he’s matured and grown each and every game.”

To his teammates, Collins has earned everything since joining the program. He doesn’t shy away from a challenge, he has a knack for the ball, and he’s humble. He admitted that the preseason was rough — the speed of the game in the Liberty scrimmage lost him, especially on defensive rotations — but he’s grown from it.

In turn, he’s proved himself to the Virginia Tech fanbase. The dunk vs. North Carolina was the first instance in a big-time game in Cassell Coliseum; the second came on his 3-pointer late in the second half.

“I’m not going to lie, Ace [Custis] and I were talking about it,” Collins said of his trey vs. UNC. “I was like, ‘Man, if I get a wide open one, I’m going to hit it. And I got the wide open one, I think Grant kicked it out to me, and I hit it. … That was a big shot for us.

“I’ve been in the gym, nights and days, with Trey [McDonald], [Ryan] Nadeau, [Mike] Jones. We’ve just been working on my shot, working on my shot. So hitting that big three, it really showed the work that we’ve been putting in.”

His performance on his first ACC stage — eight points, eight rebounds, 3-of-4 from the free throw line — is just a glimpse of what he has in store.

“He’s going to be a great player around here,” Young said.

16 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. great article dc! keep ‘em coming, please.
    we Hokies who do t live on campus or in “metro ‘Burg” love our players and their backstories endear them to us even more.

    Mr Collins has certainly stepped in string as a freshman. and his humility and team first perspective is perfect for Cassell dwellers. he will go far in life, not just basketball, with the dedication, wanting to learn, and attributes above. and he’s a Hokie! Yes sir!

    Go Hokies!

  2. Great insightful article David. You really have the knack to get the real info on our VT athletes that you interview. Like MJ, you have a bright future in this profession if you keep up the hard work.

  3. When we read about a quality, mature young person like MJ, my first thoughts immediately go to the parents. What a credit to Mom and Dad for staying the course and instilling the right values into their son. I wish MJ the best and look forward to his VT career. Good job Coach Young and staff.

  4. Think MJ reminds me of Tyrese Radford.
    Glad we have him and enjoy his contributions to the team. Glad other teammates are mentoring him. Go Hokies beat Dayton!!!

    1. had that thought, just that the “tyrese” factor will be much better integrated in the team.

  5. This great article is part of why I’m glad to be a long-time supporter of TSL. I’ll never grow tired of reading Will and CC, but the staff additions over the last few years add tremendous content, scope, and value to the site. Well done!

  6. Great article David. Interesting conversation, MJ with Ace. On the court, MJ does remind me of Ace. Smaller at 6-4 vs. 6-7, but athletic, tough, good rebounder and plays taller than they are.

  7. Great article and insight into the program and how good our coaching staff is in bringing along young players!

  8. Terrific article on a terrific young man! Looking forward to MJ’s career and development. It looks like it’s going to be a fun ride!!!

  9. David, always enjoy your close up looks inside the lives of our kids.

    You are a very good writer and you capture the essence of what these young men are all about.

    MJ is and will continue to be one of my favorite 🏀 Hokies!

    1. I’m wondering how long coach Jones will be around, we were guessing 2-3 years and this is year two. Wondering if Jones leaves, he leaves. So, yeah, he’ll take the sting of the Rice situation.unless VT becomes home for him.

  10. He wrote a wonderful article in Richmond Times-Dispatch Dispatch sometime this past summer about his Dad.

  11. I’m sure his career will take some swings, but as the expression goes “He bites as a puppy” Sorry about his buddy, seemed like a good friend to have.

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