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ASU Basketball: Aggressiveness serves Kodi Justice and the Sun Devils well

A confident Kodi Justice has been red hot over the past two weeks.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

His team needed a bucket.

The Arizona State Sun Devils had seen their 15-point halftime advantage reduced to single digits with still more than 12 minutes to play, and if a shot didn't go down quickly, they were in jeopardy of losing all momentum to the visiting Washington State Cougars.

The team's boldest player was not about to let that happen.

With a foot of daylight between him and the nearest defender, Kodi Justice had more than enough room to pull up from 23-feet and knock down his fourth three-pointer of the night. The triple made the score 47-35, giving Arizona State some much-needed breathing room in a game it would eventually go on to win by 11.

***

Just as Dos Equis has The Most Interesting Man in the World, the Sun Devils might just have Most Interesting Man in the Pac-12 in the form of Justice.

The Mesa, Ariz. product never misses the chance to pump up a crowd, whether it be in the form of waving his arms to the student section or mimicking Drake's "Hotline Bling" dance.

Justice got his big break while playing with a small club team called the Arizona Pharaohs. After dropping 35 points in a game against an AAU club out of Las Vegas, the guard received eight scholarship offers and was offered a spot on the elite Compton Magic AAU team.

"I didn't even know what AAU was all about," said Justice. "The owner of the Compton Magic gave me a call and it ended up being the best thing I've done. I lived with him during the summer, just traveling and playing basketball. It was great."

Former maroon and gold head coach Herb Sendek also liked what he saw from the 6-foot-five combo guard. While still playing at Dobson High School, Sendek gave Justice the nickname "Pistol" because his flashy passes and fill-it-up scoring ability reminded the coach of 'Pistol' Pete Maravich.

Some of that Maravich-esque style was on full display on Thursday night against Washington State. After watching the first four minutes of the game from the bench, Justice checked in and quickly made his presence known with a smooth one-handed pass down low to Savon Goodman.

That, however, was only second on the list of unique dimes dropped by the sophomore in this one.

With a little more than eight minutes remaining and his team holding a 61-52 lead, Justice ignited the spark to the run that put the final nail in the Cougar coffin. It all started with an interception of a telegraphed pass by guard Charles Callison, leading to a two-on-one fastbreak featuring Justice, Willie Atwood, and one flailing WSU defender.

As cool as can be, Justice faked out the lone opponent with a no-look, behind the back pass that was caught in perfect stride by Atwood. The small forward finished the break with a thunderous slam dunk, getting the lead back to double digits and bringing the crowd at Wells Fargo Arena to its feet in the process.

"I just saw Willie running the floor hard," Justice said. "I thought that you gotta reward the big for running, and the only way I felt like I could was throwing it behind my back."

Head coach Bobby Hurley knows that while those types of plays might only count for two points on the scoreboard, the affect they have on the crowd and rest of the team is much bigger.

"I love the creativity he shows with his passing," said Hurley after the game. "That was the one moment that the building was at its peak today."

***

These games with multiple jaw-dropping assists don't come all that often, as he typically plays the two spot (shooting guard) while on the floor at the same time as point guard Tra Holder. For a natural shooter like Justice, that's not a problem.

"It doesn't really matter to me," Justice says. "I feel like Tra and I both play the one (point guard) well. I will even play the three or the four if that's what coach needs to get a win."

Justice sees the majority of his minutes at shooting guard, where he seems to be the most confident. With 74 three-point attempts through 17 games, the odds are good that a shot is going up if he touches the ball beyond the arc.

And whether he has hit two in a row or missed four straight, that fact doesn't change.

Like any good shooter, Justice's confidence and swagger does not waver after one or two off nights. After all, the best way to get out of a slump is to shoot your way out of it. That task is made easier by a coaching staff behind him that focuses on encouragement and aggressiveness.

"It is great because last year we were kind of tentative and scared to do things," says Justice. "As soon as you made a mistake, you were pulled out instantly. Coach (Hurley) builds confidence in us to just play our game and not be worried."

You do not have to look any further than Thursday's performance to see those words in action. After making just one three-pointer in the first half, Justice came out firing in the final 20 minutes. He ended the night with four triples and 16 points -- his best outing since a 20-point explosion (one that included six makes from beyond the arc) on December 19 against Houston Baptist.

***

If it's not via a nifty pass or crucial jump shot, Justice still usually finds ways to spark Arizona State. Twice against the Cougars did he flip the possession arrow after diving on the ground to force a held ball, and early in the first half he used an athletic up and under move to beat the defense with a reverse layup.

Perhaps the sophomore's most athletic play on Thursday came while defending a fastbreak. Looking to push the tempo, Washington State forward Robert Franks was able to beat everyone but Justice down the floor. Franks went in strong for a layup but Justice had it timed perfectly and appeared to make a strong, clean block.

The trail official had a different idea. Justice stared at the referee who whistled the foul with a look of disbelief on his face and both hands over his mouth, looking like a little kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"I thought it was clean," Justice said. "I do not get many blocks like that so I really wanted it, but we're not all perfect. The refs miss things, and I do too."

***

The Sun Devils have a floor general in Holder and a serviceable big in Eric Jacobsen. Guys like Goodman and Gerry Blakes both have the potential to take over on any given day, and Atwood and Obinna Oleka are a couple of tough to guard wild cards.

But for a young team that lacks a true star, a sixth man with the confidence that Justice possesses is crucial. There is no doubt that the next shot is falling. No question that pass can be zipped between two defenders. He is the last piece to a makeshift puzzle that Hurley was handed when given the job back in April.

And if he continues to trend up, he might just get Arizona State back to the NCAA Tournament.