WARWICK, R.I. -- On the first day of Justin Mazzulla’s freshman year at Bishop Hendricken High, basketball coach Jamal Gomes had a face-to-face conversation.
And it wasn’t because Mazzulla had done anything wrong.
“I told him that I would never, ever compare him with his (older) brother (Joe),” said Gomes. “From this point on he would be his own man. What he accomplishes – his success and his failures – Justin would not be compared to his older brother.
“He’s going to rise to his own standard. I was going to help him grow as a young man and a player.”
Trying not to compare the now-junior Justin Mazzulla with his older brother can be difficult at best because Joe Mazzulla:
* Was a three-time All-State selection and played on Hendricken teams that won consecutive Division I state championships from 2004-06.
* Was named the Rhode Island Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and a senior.
* Played for legendary West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and helped lead the Mountaineers to the 2010 Final Four.
Moreover to trace the family’s genealogy even further the brothers’ father, Dan, was one of then-Bryant College’s most prolific scorers and rebounders and played on the Bulldogs’ first two NCAA Tournament teams.
But emerging from his brother’s shadow apparently hasn’t been as difficult a task as might be imagined.
Building a legacy: “It’s not really difficult at all,” said Justin Mazzulla. “His legacy here has been three state championships on varsity. My legacy is what I’m going to do to the best of my ability.
“He’s won three here. I’ve won one (in 2014). The time is different. The people surrounding him were different. I’m not going to compare myself or say I’m better or that he was better than me. He had the Barons (brothers Jim and Bill). He had many people surrounding him where he could be a good player and they could get a lot of championships.
“I don’t look at the past,” continued Mazzulla. “I’m more in the future and worrying about myself.”
Mazzulla has taken care of himself so well that:
* As a sophomore he was voted Second Team All-State honors.
* He was a key player on the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) program that captured last season’s 16-and-under AAU National Championship.
* Entering this season, ESPNU rated him a three-star guard -- a rating that conceivably get bumped up a star or two by the time he graduates in 2017.
A 6-foot-3-1/2, 187-pounder, Mazzulla just turned 17 on Dec. 27. And already Division I schools like Providence College, Boston College, Michigan, Creighton and Brown have expressed serious interest in him.
But unlike some players his age, Mazzulla hasn’t asked Gomes to have his head measured for a larger cap.
“The attention doesn’t affect me at all,” said Mazzulla. “I’m like ‘Wow! This school has spoken to me and this school has spoken to me.’ But you have to put that in your pocket and say ‘OK. I didn’t really accomplish much. They’re just interested in me.’
“There are millions of basketball players out there that are better than me. I’m not going to sit here and say ‘I really made it.’ You don’t make it until you actually make it. I’m not going to say I’m going to stop working. I’m going to work until I make it to the school where I want to go.”
Where the Hawks “want to go” is back to the State Open Tournament and bring home another championship plaque.
Through January 12, the Hawks were 3-1 in Division I and 6-2 overall.
During those eight games, Mazzulla is averaging 13.5 points; 8.0 rebounds, seven assists and one block. He’s also drawn an average of three charging calls.
“He was a starter as a freshman -- the second game of the season,” said Gomes. “He helped lead our team as a freshman during our state championship run.
“He’s a fitness nut. He started hitting the weights and put on some good muscle weight. He came in (this season) as the best physical specimen (on the team). He worked hard to improve his body and improve his game.”
Standing his ground: One aspect Mazzulla has worked hard at is drawing charging calls.
“Justin is a high-energy player,” said Gomes. “Where he brings us the most energy is on the defensive end. He has great vision. He almost always is in good position when his teammates bet beat.
“He’s not afraid to sacrifice his body. He’s taken so many charges that his body’s been banged up.”
Playing hard at both ends of the court was something that was ingrained in him by Gomes.
“I was scared of charges for a while,” said Mazzulla. “But once you have the adrenaline and you know how good a charge feels when you take it, you have to take more charges.
“The man that helped me take more charges was coach Gomes. He’s such a defensive-minded coach. When you have a relationship with your coach for so long you start to be that guy. I feel I’m starting to be coach Gomes defensively. He’s hard on defense and that’s why I’m trying to be like coach because he’s such a great defensive guy.”
Versatility on offense is another of Mazzulla’s calling cards.
While on some teams he might be slotted in solely as a point guard, Gomes has the luxury of moving him virtually to any position on the floor.
“He can play multiple positions,” said Mazzulla. “We have him at the point because he’s the engine for what we want to do to get out on the break. He can play the 3-4 spot because he can play with his back to the basket.
“We’ll start him at the one spot. But during points in the game, if we need interior scoring or we need him to play closer to the basket we’ll move him around.”
Mazzulla, admittedly, relishes playing point guard – as his seven assists per game would attest.
“I enjoy the point guard position because I like setting up my teammates and giving them opportunities to score,” he said. “I like leading my team to victory -- not only to victory but improving my teammates and making sure they’re better people at what they’re doing.
“If I’m surrounded by a bunch of role players, I’m going to make them 100 percent in what their role is. I like being at the point because I like being in control.”
While Gomes understandably has had a major influence on Mazzulla, you can multiply that times two when it comes to his family.
“My brother and father influenced me basketball wise according to motivation,” he said. “They’ve influenced me to work my hardest at all times on and off the court and in school and in being a better person. Being a good player just doesn’t mean being good on the court. It also means being a good person.
“Basketball is like a job. You have to show up and be there. When your job’s over you have to be a great person as well. They influenced me to be a good basketball player but also to have a humble attitude.”