TEMPE, Ariz. — Kodi Justice’s game is an entertaining and effective blend of talent, dazzle, tenacity and work ethic.
Arizona State’s junior guard comes by the talent naturally. The dazzle from years of playing on the playgrounds before getting into organized basketball. The tenacity from a relentlessly competitive spirit.
The work ethic, that was forged through years of working to overcome a learning disability that left him afraid to speak in front of his classmates when he was a kid.
Dyslexia helped Justice become a better basketball player and, in turn, the success on the court made the Arizona State junior better in the classroom.
“When you have to go through a thing like I did at a young age and being scared about it, of course it was an outlet for me being on the court,” Justice said. “Being able to work hard on the court, it was like why can’t it be like this in the classroom? Why stop, why give up and push it aside? It’s kind of built that work ethic in me on the court and in the classroom.”
Justice was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age and was reluctant to tell anyone for fear of being mocked. It came anyway when he mixed up words while reading in front of his classes, shaking his confidence further.
It wasn’t until Justice’s sophomore year at Dobson High School in Mesa, Arizona, that he acknowledged his condition. He has continued to be open about it, occasionally hearing from parents whose children have dyslexia.
“At a young age, it was hard to talk about it because I was worried what people thought about me, but it’s part of me, who I am,” he said. “It’s not that big of a deal to me anymore. I take the punches and roll with them. I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that people have things that aren’t 100 percent normal. They have these disabilities and there’s no reason to hide from it. Yeah, there’s going to be ups and downs, but why be scared of it?
Justice is just as fearless on the court.
The 6-foot-5 junior may not be the biggest or most athletic player on the floor, but has become the floor-burning heart of Arizona State’s team. Rangy and scrappy, Justice plays every possession as if it were his last, has a do-whatever-it-takes mentality every coach would love to have in all his players.
“He fights, he’s got the energy, he doesn’t get tired too often,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said. “The trust is there.”
Justice gets his scrappiness from playing outdoors as a kid. While many Division I players come up through the club-team ranks, Justice did not start playing organized basketball until the eighth grade.
On the playground, he learned to never give an inch to players much bigger and older, training that has helped him thrive at Arizona State.
He’s the Sun Devils’ best perimeter shooter, with range that extends nearly to the midcourt circle. He’s made 43.6 percent of his 3-point shots while averaging 9.1 points per game. He’s an adept and creative passer, occasionally catching teammates off-guard with where-did-that-come passes, playing with a flair that’s has been likened to a young Pete Maravich by Hall of Famer Bill Walton and his former coach, Herb Sendek.
Justice typically comes off the bench and provides instant energy, like a triple shot of espresso, leading the break, pulling up for 3-pointers, hounding his man for every inch of floor space on defense.
And he’ll guard anyone. Got a 7-footer on your roster? Justice doesn’t care.
Against Creighton earlier this season, the 190-pound Justice was tasked with guarding Justin Patton, the Bluejays’ 7-foot freshman center. Though dwarfed by Patton, Justice leaned on him, fought for every inch in the paint. He did it again on Saturday against No. 7 Arizona, guarding 7-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen for stretches.
“I’m very competitive, so if you’re the best player, you’re supposed to be bigger or better than me, I like that competition,” Justice said. “Prove it. Come out and prove that you’re better than me. If you knock me down, I’m getting back up and coming right back at you. I love taking on challenges like that.”
Justice has taken the same approach to his school work. Though there are tough times with his dyslexia, he has fought through it and will graduate with a degree in sociology this summer — in just three years.
Justice has one year of eligibility left and is deciding whether to pursue his master’s degree or complete a double major in communications.
“It’s a great accomplishment to be one of the first people in my family to graduate,” Justice said. “And to be dyslexic, too, it just showed the kind of person I am, how much of a hard worker I am, how dedicated I am to not just being good at basketball, but being good in life.”
NEXT: ASU is the No. 8 seed in this week’s Pac-12 tournament and opens tourney play at 1 p.m. Wednesday against ninth-seeded Stanford.