One day during his freshman year, Sa'eed Nelson had company at school: A tall, thin eighth-grader who trailed him from class to class to get a sense of life as a St. Augustine Prep student.

"He was my shadow," Nelson said of the shy, skinny kid who decided to follow in his footsteps through the hallways, both across the school's picturesque campus and on the basketball court as well.

Three years later, Nelson still is leading the way.

But Justyn Mutts doesn't operate in anybody's shadow anymore.

"He's ready to show people what a great player he is," Nelson said of his taller half in one of the most dynamic guard-forward combinations in the state.

With Nelson as the creative senior point guard and Mutts as the explosive junior forward, the St. Augustine basketball team enters the season with its sights set on fulfilling the promise of a partnership that began during the big man's visit to the school in the spring of 2013.

St. Augustine coach Paul Rodio, South Jersey's all-time leader in career victories, believes the Nelson-Mutts combination could be as potent and productive as any in his 39-year run at the school in Richland, Atlantic County.

"I've had a lot of great duos and I don't want to get into ranking them," Rodio said. "But they could be as good a duo as I've had."

Rodio notes that both athletes were varsity players as freshman and both have made significant improvement during the course of their careers.

Last season, Nelson and Mutts were the leading scorers for a St. Augustine team that went 27-2, going unbeaten against South Jersey opponents.

The Hermits' losses were to a California team in overtime in the finals of a holiday tournament in San Diego and to eventual state champion Christian Brothers Academy by 83-77 in the Non-Public South A final.

"We want to go farther this year - we want to win a state title," Nelson said. "That's what we think this team is capable of doing. We have that kind of potential."

The Hermits have a deep, talented roster and an athlete to watch in junior guard Austin Kennedy, who was an unsung hero as a sophomore and could emerge as an even more of an impact player this season.

But the Hermits likely will go as far as their dynamic duo takes them, with Nelson controlling the tempo with his ballhandling and decision-making, and Mutts displaying his athleticism on the boards, at the defensive end and in transition.

"Both are D-I talents, for starters," Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said of the pair. "Nelson makes everyone around him better because of his ability to see two or three frames ahead of the play. He's a coach on the floor and has an uncanny ability to get in the lane at will.

"Mutts is a very good athlete for a big guy. He can finish around the basket with either hand and has an explosive first step to get to the rim and dunk."

Nelson has grown both physically and in his command of the game since he was a skinny, 5-foot-7 freshman who startled observers with his wizardry with the basketball.

Now a solid 6-footer, Nelson has signed to attend American University on a basketball scholarship. He also considered Boston University and Holy Cross.

"I'm a lot more relaxed, not trying to do too much," said Nelson, who lives in Pleasantville. "I'm signed, I know where I'm going next year. I still will play hard, play tough, but I can have fun too."

Nelson averaged 18.2 points as a first-team All-South Jersey selection as a junior. He was at his best in big games late in the season, averaging 25.6 points in three Cape-Atlantic League and three Non-Public South A tournament games.

Rodio said Nelson "lives on the edge," with his creative style.

"Artie DiPatri told me something and I'll never forget it," Rodio said of the late, great Paul VI coach. "He said with a player like that, the rewards outweigh the risks. He's going to make one bad play but he's also going to make three good plays that more than make up for it."

Nelson said his primary goal as point guard is to get his teammates involved in the offense.

"That's the first thing I try to do," Nelson said before a recent scrimmage against Camden. "My points come after that. I want to see them involved, scoring, moving the ball. That's my job."

Mutts said Nelson is "the best point guard in South Jersey" and the key to the Hermits' success.

"He's running the show for us," Mutt said.

The 6-foot-6 Mutts is coming off a strong sophomore season in which he averaged 13.6 points and scored in double figures in 23 games.

Mutts has scholarship offers from Monmouth, Tennessee-Chattanooga and Virginia Union. Rodio said Mutts could draw recruiting interest from programs at a higher level of college basketball if he continues to develop his perimeter game.

"Six-to-10 feet from basket, he's very difficult to stop," Rodio said. "What he needs to continue to develop is the ability to step farther away from the basket, shoot the ball from a little more distance.

"If he does that, he's going to be recruited at an even higher level."

Mutts, who lives in Millville, said he has worked hard to improve his ballhandling and shooting.

"He's getting better and better," Nelson said. "He's so athletic, so fast down the floor."

Rodio said the "chemistry" between his two top players is "special," with no friction over shots, points and attention.

"They're great kids and they get along with each other and with their teammates," Rodio said of Nelson and Mutts.

Nelson said he didn't know Mutts when they were in grammar school and that the two athletes didn't play against each other in youth basketball nor in AAU competition.

"I saw him play as an eighth grader at a game in Atlantic City," Nelson said. "I was like, 'Wow, that kid is good.' "

Mutts said he's been following Nelson's lead since that time in the spring of 2013, when he trailed the freshman through his day as a student.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow - that's Sa'eed Nelson. That's the guy everybody is talking about,'" Mutts said. "I spent the day with him and I knew this was the place I wanted to be."

@PhilAnastasia

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