Is a First NCAA Tournament Berth on the Horizon for Mazzulla?
“A strong leader and great player”. That’s what George Washington head coach Jamion Christian had to say about his former point guard Justin Mazzulla. The Johnston, Rhode Island native made the jump to Vermont just five games into the 2019-20 season, but the young guard is still highly regarded by his peers for his achievements both on and off the court. While Mazzulla’s sudden transfer news was unforeseen by many, his addition to the Catamounts should make for a seemingly excellent fit.
Mazzulla’s transfer case is a bit different and not quite as cut and dry as what you’d typically expect. After leaving George Washington five games into the season, Mazzulla immediately enrolled in Vermont and joined the Cats for the latter half of the 2019-20 season. He would sit out the remainder of the year, though his support and encouragement from the bench was felt throughout Patrick Gym. I’m no NCAA transfer expert, nor do I know what type of loopholes could be in place, but Mazzulla should be granted anywhere between 1-2 years of eligibility, providing the Cats with even more leadership and stability from the guard position in the years to come.
During his time at George Washington, Mazzulla was the straw that stirred the drink. He started 45 out 70 games in just over two years, including all 33 as a sophomore in 2018-19. He boasted an average of 8.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game that year. Mazzulla consistently made smart plays, as he’d break the double-digit scoring mark 17 times throughout the season. Along with his reliability, Mazzulla showcases a very well-rounded and versatile skill set that makes him a threat on both ends of the court.
While no one should be questioning Mazzulla’s talent or leadership qualities, defining a specific role for the young guard is the real challenge. Stef Smith and Benny Shungu are entrenched as the starters in the backcourt. Likewise, the versatile Robin Duncan and electric Aaron Deloney are more than capable of playing 20+ minutes every night. So where does that leave Mazzulla? Adding a player of Mazzulla’s caliber is a phenomenal pick up, as his addition is definitely a luxury of the winning culture at Vermont. So what can we expect from Mazzulla during his first year in Burlington?
How Mazzulla can Make an Impact
When Mazzulla first arrived in Vermont it was his leadership and encouragement that were on full display. Along with his fellow bench mob members, Mazzulla helped lead the way with creative and exuberant celebrations after a Catamount big play. The energy and passion fed into the crowd and quickly got Patrick Gym LOUD. Mazzulla has expressed enough already to show that he’s 100% bought into the Catamount culture. Vermont is losing two great veteran leaders in Anthony Lamb and Everett Duncan and while the Cats have plenty of leaders throughout the team, the addition of another strong veteran presence is always welcome.
Outside of his moral support across the roster, Mazzulla’s biggest impact on the court will be maintaining tempo. Mazzulla’s solid stat line and model of consistency are what pop out about his game. He produced the best assists-to-turnover ratio for George Washington and his smart play will help him see the floor in crucial situations. The question still remains, where does he stand with Robin Duncan and Aaron Deloney? While Duncan and Deloney are fantastic guards in their own right, their style of play differs slightly than Mazzulla. In fact, John Becker has the chance to get real creative with his line-ups this year and it wouldn’t be a shock to see these three all on the court together.
Out of those aforementioned three, Mazzulla’s style of play compares the most favorably to Stef Smiths. Should Smith run into any foul trouble or miss time due to injury, Mazzulla can take over without much change in how the offense runs. While Duncan and Deloney will also be featured heavily throughout the season, Mazzulla is the ultimate security blanket. Duncan and Deloney’s strengths to the team will be covered at another date, but expect both to see the floor quite a bit as well. The young guard from Johnston, RI has already shown off his leadership and affection for his teammates, now his time to make an impact on the court is coming. Get ready for a new fan favorite in Burlington.
Room for Improvement?
Mazzulla offers the Catamounts another well-rounded and versatile guard who can do a little bit of everything. However, there are still plenty of areas that could use some improvement. One facet in particular is Mazzulla’s three-point shooting woes. In just a hair over two years, Mazzulla has a career average of under 30% from deep (.298) and has only attempted 104 shots from beyond the arc. To put that in context, Stef Smith took 189 three-point attempts just a season ago and boasts an almost 40% clip for his career.
Robin Duncan is another guard who has struggled to hit from deep, yet he prefers to utilize his length when attacking and has a keen pass-first mentality. Mazzulla ideally will operate best as a drive-and-kick guard, though adding more consistency from beyond the arc would truly keep defenders honest and force them to engage. With Everett Duncan leaving, Vermont will be looking to fill the void with another dependable sharpshooter. Expect the Cats to use a committee approach, but if someone from the pack can emerge it will drastically increase their playing time.
Along with Mazzulla, Tomas Murphy and Bernie Andre also joined the Cats as incoming transfers. Mazzulla had the added benefit of being able to practice with Vermont in the latter half of the year and pick up the system. Even with a stacked guard line-up, those extra reps should be a huge assistance, as we’ve all seen that there can be a learning curve for even some of the top transfers. Without a doubt Mazzulla should be able to slide into any line-up for the Cats. Hard to say if this is an area that needs improvement, but having yet to see the young guard perform in-game, it should still be a primary point of emphasis.
Reliable, consistent, jack-of-all-trades. Mazzulla’s addition to the Cats should be a fruitful one both on and off the court. As a guard that prides himself on his versatility, it’s hard to pinpoint particular areas that could use significant improvement. Should Mazzulla try to specialize on one facet of his game over the others, he should be more than capable of doing so. Ultimately that comes down to what the coaching staff might deem the most necessary, but they seem more than content with Mazzulla’s multifaceted style of play.
The three-point shooting of Mazzulla was considered an area of concern, so one season goal from a statistical approach should be to finish the year around 35% from deep. Vermont’s offense runs best when they can weave the ball inside and out, forcing the defense to shift and ultimately finding the open man. Mazzulla might be a better facilitator, but he should see plenty of open looks from the beyond the arc. He doesn’t have to take every shot, just the right ones. A 35% clip from deep would give Vermont another solid option from outside.
Unless some freak injuries strike and Mazzulla has an outrageous year statistically, it’s difficult to foresee any type of individual awards on the horizon. While the recognition is always nice, Mazzulla has shown that those types of individual accolades mean far less than the team’s success. Even with the dysfunction at George Washington, Mazzulla could’ve stayed and earned a much more significant role, but with the program in turmoil and lack of postseason success, the young guard needed a change of scenery. By transferring from George Washington to Vermont, Mazzulla acknowledged to the world that he’d rather put the team first than his own personal success.
This goal is a bit of a cop out, but Mazzulla will ultimately strive for providing excellent depth and veteran leadership to a team with high expectations. He joins a team that has won the America East regular season championship four years running and has been in the America East title game five years straight. Adding another tally to both of those marks will be Mazzulla’s drive and motivation throughout the season. His time at George Washington was pretty bleak, so the opportunity to be a contributor on a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations has to be a breath of fresh air.
Finally, and this might be peering into the crystal ball a bit too much – Mazzulla should learn the game from a coaching perspective. Does Mazzulla want to embark on a coaching career after he finishes playing? Honestly, I have no clue, but it should be something that at least peaks his curiosity. As a vocal leader who has quickly earned the respect of his peers, along with his basketball IQ and court awareness, Mazzulla seems like a natural. Coincidentally, his older brother Joe, who played for West Virginia went into coaching. Joe led Fairfield State University to a 43-17 record from 2017-19, before joining the Boston Celtics as an Assistant Coach. Great coaching might just be in Justin’s blood.
Mazzulla is another player who falls into that gray area without a defined role. During his sophomore season at George Washington, Mazzulla averaged 33.5 minutes a game. It’s safe to say he won’t eclipse those numbers during his time at Vermont, so where does the young guard fit in?
Based off last season, it would make sense that the coaching staff will look to increase Aaron Deloney’s workload, while keeping Robin Duncan in a similar role of around 20 minutes a game. Personally I believe that Deloney and Duncan might edge out Mazzulla for court time, but it would not surprise me if Mazzulla overtakes either of them. The coaching staff will likely determine playing time more so from on-cort match-ups, along with riding the hot hand. Divvying up minutes between three excellent guards is the type of problem any team would welcome in a heartbeat.
During his abbreviated 2019-20 season, Mazzulla averaged 5 points, 1.8 assists, and 1.5 rebounds on a 16 minute average per contest. Realistically that seems closer to what we can expect rather than his 33.5 average from the 2018-19 season. Anything can happen and Mazzulla could very well exceed the 20 minute mark average once again, but for now we’ll stick right around here.
2020-21 Statistical Predictions
- 15.6 minutes per game
- 4.6 points per game
- 2.3 assists per game
- 1.9 rebounds per game
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