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Kyrese Mullen’s jump in production a bright spot for struggling Hampton team

The Hampton men’s basketball team has been stuck in a rut for the past month, but a 6-foot-7, 230-pound bright spot might just be the Pirates’ ticket to getting back on track.

Sophomore forward Kyrese Mullen has been on fire for Hampton since its season tipped off. The Norfolk native leads the Pirates in scoring and rebounding and is ranked in the top 10 of those respective categories in the CAA.

“Kyrese is the heart and soul of the team,” Hampton coach Buck Joyner said. “He’s a young man that you can’t help but root for. Basically being undersized and not as athletic as probably anybody he plays against — the results that he personally gets are probably nothing short of amazing and it’s a testament to his work ethic.”

Mullen is averaging 15.1 points per game this season, ranking No. 9 in the CAA, and has already surpassed his point total from last season in 14 games. On top of that, he’s leading the CAA with 9.8 rebounds per game.

“I feel like I’m in a rhythm,” Mullen said. “But then again, I’m just going out there to try to help my team win. If that’s me grabbing 20 rebounds or whatever, no points. I’m in a rhythm, but I’m just trying to do whatever I can do to get my team a win and be aggressive for the team.”

During his freshman year, Mullen started 19 of the 25 games he played in. This season, Mullen has started all 14 games he’s played in. He has nearly doubled his points per game from last season (8.1), has already eclipsed the number of shots he took and made and is on track to easily pass his rebound total as well.

The jump in production has surprised both Mullen and his head coach to an extent, but both know it was bound to happen sooner or later.

“I knew he put in a lot of work this summer,” Joyner said. “The amount of the jump — and I mean basically damn near doubling everything — I don’t know that I saw. He’s one of the kids, again, I rooted for him and hoped his production would match his work ethic.”

Mullen has also been a double-double machine this season. Through 14 games, he already has nine double-doubles — tied for sixth in the NCAA. Mullen has tallied a double-double in six of Hampton’s past eight games.

There have been just two games this season where he has failed to score more than 10 points and only five where he’s tallied less than 10 rebounds.

“Last year as a freshman, I was coming in and the game was too fast for me,” said Mullen, who finished his high school career at Massanutten Military Academy. “The game has slowed down for me now and I can make the right plays without rushing.”

Coming into this season, Mullen said he focused on improving his jump shot, and the fruits of that offseason labor can already be seen.

He is shooting 46.6% from the field, which is technically down from 48.1% last season, but that’s more a result of him taking more shots this season. Mullen’s percentage of shots taken is 26.7% this season, according to KenPom, which is up from 15.5% last season.

“He was a workhorse and a warrior and all that, but Kyrese made jump shots in high school by a lot — so we kinda knew he had that,” Joyner said. “… I don’t think even the numbers tell how good of a shooter that he actually is or can be. It’s still a work in progress, but that’s due to the work he put in.”

The forward has also added the threat of a 3-point shot to his game. Last season, Mullen took just five 3-point attempts and this season, he’s already taken 52.

While he’s shooting just 23.1% from beyond the arc, having that ability to shoot the three will likely be necessary if he wants to take Hampton to new heights and will undoubtedly be beneficial down the road when he chases a professional career.

“With the three ball helping, it’s like you can either contain me at the rim or you got to step out,” Mullen said. “So it spreads the floor for everyone. If I’m not in the paint, I step out and hit a three, so now they have to come out and guard the three. So it’s not like a one-possession thing like I can actually step out and move around.”

Hampton will look to break out of its six-game losing streak, the past three of which have been against CAA opponents, on Thursday night against William & Mary. Both Mullen and Joyner said the key for the Pirates is to play a full 40 minutes, something that has plagued them in recent losses.

“We come out right in the first half, but in the second half we kinda slow down,” Mullen said. “We go in stretches for like eight minutes where we don’t score and I just feel like that’s gotta change throughout all the games. We’ve been in these games we’ve played. For the outcome to be what it is, we just got to play in the second half the way we play in the first.”

Michael Sauls, michael.sauls@virginiamedia.com, (757) 803-5774