Facing its toughest test of the season, a road game in January against lethal UCLA and Lonzo Ball ─ arguably the NCAA’s best point guard ─ the Cal men’s basketball team didn’t look like much competition for its hosts. The Bruins took Ivan Rabb out of the game for most of the first half with effective double teams, and without their beast inside, the Bears turned to their shooters, most of whom struggled.
Grant Mullins, however, shot 4-6 for 10 first-half points to keep the Bears in position for a second-half comeback. Down 20 points at halftime, the comeback eventually came up short, but Mullins added three second-half threes while helping Cal cut the UCLA lead to as little as five points.
“He’s one of the best shooters I’ve ever played with, he’s basically automatic from three, and he’s a solid ball handler,” says teammate Jabari Bird. “He brings effort every night.”
That night, in such a high-profile game, Mullins’ name became a little better-known by Golden Bears everywhere. But the efficiency and level-headedness which the graduate transfer displayed that night has been around all season ─ and long before that ─ regardless of who was watching.
“He’s one of the best shooters I’ve ever played with, he’s basically automatic from three, and he’s a solid ball handler. He brings effort every night.”
At first, the only audience were Grant’s parents, Andy and Theresa, and his three siblings, Marie, Missy and Mike, all playing together in their driveway in Burlington, Ontario. But the Mullins family itself has a unique history with the sport of basketball.
Andy played various sports in high school and played basketball and lacrosse in college until a knee injury ended his competitive athletic career. Theresa, likewise, played basketball at the high school and college level, but also played for the Canadian junior and senior national teams, as well as a short stint professionally in the Netherlands which she described as “just for fun.”
It’s safe to say that this background in sports influenced the way Andy and Theresa raised their children. At the very least, the Mullins parents’ sports history planted a seed in their children’s minds.
“The kids just soak it up and I think probably the most important part of their development was to see us continuing to play as parents,” Theresa says. “Both Andy and I, we played a bunch of sports. It’s kind of a culture as a family. And the kids are so curious. They wanted to know where we played and how far we went. Hearing that stuff just subconsciously with children, they set those goals for themselves.”
Interestingly, Andy and Theresa, didn’t particularly push their children into basketball, but rather always emphasized the need for an active lifestyle without emphasizing any specific sport. Their rule for their kids was that they could play any sport they wanted to, given that they were doing something for every season of the year.
“I think that’s kind of the culture that’s coming back now,” Theresa notes. “A lot of the big star athletes are saying that they tried a lot of sports in the summertime that they didn’t do in the winter, and it helped their careers by giving them extra skills, different types of skills and strengthening their bodies in different muscle groups by doing different sports.”
But the family’s tendency prevailed, and all four kids chose their winter sport to be basketball.
Grant’s parents could tell that from an early age, he was a smart player and had the potential to succeed at higher levels of play, provided he continued to hone his craft.
“He could always slow down what was happening, so even at a young age you could see it,” Andy says. “He always had the ability to sort of step back and deal with pressure during a game.”
When he was in high school, Missy started playing at Harvard, giving Grant two years of opportunities to visit her and experience Ivy League basketball. Grant took a few trips to Boston to visit his sister, and in the process he befriended members of both the men’s and women’s teams there. Visiting her may have helped Grant in deciding to follow in her footsteps and join the Ivy League two years later to play for Columbia.
“He could always slow down what was happening, so even at a young age you could see it. He always had the ability to sort of step back and deal with pressure during a game.”
“I think it was just a coincidence that he ended up doing something kind of along the same path (as me),” Missy says. “What is similar is that we both wanted to go pursue the highest level of academics that we could in addition to playing basketball, so we were both just so lucky to have that work out.”
Once at Columbia, Grant had a bit of an adjustment period, but did so while playing heavy minutes. He averaged just over 28 minutes a game his freshman year, the second most on the team, and started in 18 of the 25 contests he played in. In addition, he was second on the team in scoring, and was twice named Ivy League Rookie of the Week.
His efforts did not go unnoticed. First, the Canadian National Team called him up to play for the National Development Team in China in the summer of 2013. This was followed by Grant becoming a full-time starter as he came back to New York for his sophomore year. In 24 appearances ─ all starts ─ Grant increased his shot volume, minutes per game, points per game and total assists.
Unfortunately for Grant, while his performance had shown significant improvement, his progress was all but derailed after he sustained an injury when his head hit the floor in a game against Princeton. He sat out the next game with a concussion and tried to come back for two games, but it was clear that he needed to be shut down for the final nine games of the year, including his team’s run to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT).
Things didn’t get better. The symptoms persisted during the offseason and he was forced to sit out the entirety of his junior year. As unconventional as it may seem, the head injury could be viewed, in a certain light, as a blessing in disguise ─ without the injury Grant would never have come to Cal.
The NCAA allows student athletes four years of eligibility in their first five years after enrollment, allowing for one year to redshirt. The Ivy League, however, only allows four years, rather than five, with the goal in mind being to preserve the reputation of rigorous academic standards. Consequently, after Grant missed his junior season, his senior year would be his third and last for the Lions.
Healthy once again, Grant started all 34 games of his final season and posted career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game. And while Columbia did squander the top spot in the Ivy League and with it, an NCAA Tournament berth, Grant was crucial in the Lions’ run to the CIT championship, including a game-high 20 points on 6-7 shooting ─ which featured an incredible and-one layup to give the Lions the lead late in the game.
“To end my senior year off like that was a good feeling,” Grant says, “especially being a senior with those guys for a long time.”
But while the season ended on an emotional high, Grant wasn’t ready to give up his fourth year of NCAA eligibility. While he knew he would be ending his time at Columbia, he had applied for a waiver for a fifth-year of eligibility in fall of 2015, which was approved the following February. After the CIT, Grant quickly narrowed down his list to Cal, Syracuse and Michigan.
“I thought about it as basketball was my main focus, a good basketball situation, and Cal fit that,” Grant says. “I thought about the academics and the reputation as a good school, which Cal obviously has. And then I thought about location. So all those three things came together.”
Grant was part of the biggest week of Cal sports news this past offseason. News of Grant’s signing with the Bears came just days after Ivan Rabb decided not to declare for the NBA draft and to come back to Cal for his sophomore year. A month later Grant was viewed as a solid sharpshooting replacement for Jordan Matthews, who announced his transfer to Gonzaga.
And from the moment Grant came on his official visit to Cal, he meshed well with the team and since then, his transition has been at least as smooth as his shooting stroke.
“When I heard that Grant was coming in I was super excited. He had come to an open gym on his visit and played with us and I really liked his game,” Bird said. “Just talking to him he seemed so down to earth, like he could really fit into our team with his personality.”
When Grant was a freshman at Columbia, in an interview with The Hamilton Spectator, he was quoted saying “The dream was just to play Division I basketball and hopefully end up in the tournament one day.”.
Grant has clearly achieved the former of those high school dreams. Now, with only a few games remaining this season, it’s up to him to earn that coveted NCAA tournament bid and achieve his goals once again.
Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].