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ASU Basketball: Justice impresses in early season victory over UNLV

Justice put on a show for the home crowd in his first home start as a Sun Devil Wednesday.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kodi Justice committed to Arizona State on Sept. 25, 2011, in his sophomore year at Dobson High School in Mesa Ariz. At 6-foot-3, 160 pounds, many viewed him as a scrawny 3-star guard who might come off the bench three years later on one of Sendek's teams. After bringing in some highly touted junior college recruits, he became the forgotten child of the 2014 recruiting class for the Sun Devils. But seven games into the 2014-15 season, Justice's impact cannot be ignored.

He sat out against Colgate Saturday, but Wednesday night against UNLV, Justice shot 5 of 9 from the field, 3 of 5 from three-point range, accumulating 13 points, five rebounds and six assists.

"This is just how I play, I don't know, I don't feel like I'm playing any different than if it was high school or club," Justice said. "It just feels the same to me so I'm just playing how I naturally play."

He also earned the start against Alabama in Kansas City, managing eight points, four assists and three rebounds, nearly leading the team to victory if it weren't for some poor shot selection late in the game by his teammates. It wasn't until early November that ASU head coach Herb Sendek began giving Justice reps at the point guard spot in practice.

"There was always some murmuring that he could play point guard, but to be honest with you, I wasn't convinced," Sendek said.

Wednesday night Justice proved him wrong and then some. He has become the early season answer against more athletic teams like UNLV who will jump around to try and block shots and get steals. Justice remains level-headed in those kinds of situations, which is remarkable for a freshman. He also compliments Gerry Blakes well. When two teams try to play the same athletic game against each other, which happens occasionally with Tra Holder on the floor, the team with more skilled athletes wins.

That's exactly what happened against UNLV, something Sendek saw early and took a timeout with 18:02 to play in the first half. ASU hadn't passed the ball more than twice in their first couple of possessions. Justice came out and slowed everything down with more shot and ball fakes to set up teammates.

"It's a lot faster so you've got to slow everything down in your mind and make everything crisp and sharp," Justice said. "But I prefer playing the point guard, I played guard in high school for for four years. I've always played the point guard position and I just feel more comfortable in that role."

The motion offense which ASU found themselves running more of Wednesday, lends itself to Justice's style. He's not going to beat a more athletic Division I guard one-on-one on the ball so consistent movement and cuts around the ball help him tremendously. The most effective lineup Wednesday during that 20-2 run which put ASU back in the game included Justice, Blakes, Jon Gilling, Bo Barnes and Eric Jacobsen who all ran the motion offense efficiently.

Justice also recognizes the skill sets of his teammates, which is vital to the success of any point guard. It helped ASU assist on 19 of their 27 made buckets.

"Bo (Barnes) and Jon (Gilling) they can shoot the ball a lot well but I might have to kick it to the corner for them, or I've got a backdoor for Shaq (McKissic) it's all different," Justice said. "It makes the game easier with the shooters on the court."

He has the ability to both play slowly within himself, but also push it up the floor with the Sun Devils up-tempo offense, which is a very tough balance to strike. Another aspect of Justice's game that isn't always apparent is his quiet confidence. It's rare for a freshman to be as sure handed as Justice.

He has only turned the ball over three times in his six games played and didn't turn it over once against UNLV. The always-philosophical Sendek pulled a reference out of popular culture for an adjective, but it was perhaps the most appropriate: "swag."

"I thought Kodi Justice took another step in the right direction as a young emerging guard for us," Sendek said. "So many times although he may not have recorded an assist on paper, he's doing such a good job of hitting the man up the floor who is open."

He was the forgotten one, lost among the taller and stronger athletes in this recruiting class. But now, thanks to his fundamentals and unselfishness on the court, he is becoming just another player opposing head coaches will need to game plan for. And while Sendek didn't see Justice evolving to this level so early in his ASU career, he's certainly glad Justice has performed well at the point guard spot so far this season.

"Certainly Kodi continues to gain confidence and play better and better," Sendek said. "Maybe we missed the boat, but fortunately we've discovered he can do that and do it very well."