But as fate would have it, basketball eventually became an integral part of his future and of his path to Missouri State University-West Plains.
Justin grew up in a family that breathed baseball. "Baseball is my first sport. I've been playing it since I was five. My dad loved baseball and was my coach growing up. Other sports were recreational. I didn't start playing basketball until my sophomore year in high school," he explained. Justin's father started the first traveling baseball team for Garfield Heights, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland where the family lived at the time and Justin played for the team, traveling all over the state and to South Carolina and Indiana for games. "Every summer was baseball. I didn't have summer vacations. It was always baseball," he said. Some of his teammates even became his competitors when he reached high school.
Justin got his first taste of what a professional career in the sport might be like when he transferred to Strongsville, which boasted a team that was nationally ranked, his senior year. "The team was run like a pro team," he recalled. "Most high schools have interchangeable players, but not at Strongsville. Each player had a position and they were trained to excel at that position. As a result, I was able to focus on my pitching that year."
The effort paid off, as Justin was named Ohio's Player of the Year and was a Rawlings preseason and postseason All-American honoree. Not only did the awards and accolades catch Ohio State's attention, it also drew scouts from Major League Baseball. That spring, officials with the Texas Rangers organization decided to draft him into the organization and after training in Surprise, AZ that summer and the following spring, he was assigned to the Rangers' low A farm club team, the Spokane Indians in Spokane, WA.
"I left the day after high school graduation for training in Surprise," Justin said. "This was the first time I had been on my own and I thought I was ready for all of it, but I didn't really know what I was getting into. I was an 18-year-old kid who was being thrown dollar signs I'd never seen before. It was the opportunity of a lifetime." Justin played for Spokane for two years before a torn labrum in his shoulder during 2011 spring training sidelined him and eventually led to his release later that summer.
All of the sudden, the one thing Justin had been trained to do and was counting on was taken away and he returned to the Cleveland area. Still living on his own, he decided to enroll in classes at Cleveland State University, but the experience didn't go well and he had difficulty adjusting to a life without baseball. "I didn't know what I was going to do anymore. Baseball had been such a big part of my life and I didn't know what to do next," he said. A chance meeting with one of his former high school basketball coaches changed that. After hearing Justin's story, the coach promised to make some inquiries for him about possible basketball scholarships to some colleges and universities."It was a blessing, perfect timing for him to come back into my life like that," Justin said.
One of the collegiate coaches to respond was Grizzly Assistant Basketball Coach Chad Van Riessen. Van Riessen went to Ohio, put Justin through a little workout and liked what he saw. After a follow-up visit to the campus, the coaches offered Justin a scholarship to play basketball for the Grizzlies. "It's been great," he said of his transfer to Missouri State-West Plains. "I came in at the beginning of the summer and it was a little rough at first. I was out of shape and overweight, so I had to focus on getting back in shape. But I've made tremendous strides since I've been here. It's been a good experience for me."
Justin's been an integral part of the Grizzlies success so far this season, averaging 8.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game through 22 games. Even more importantly, however, is the fact that Justin is getting back on track academically. He posted a perfect 4.0 grade point average in his summer classes and had a 3.3 GPA during the fall semester. "I'm in a better mindset now," he explained. "I have a good support system that's pushing me to succeed. I feel like I'm much happier now. I'm doing something now that I really want to do. I felt a little pressure growing up to play baseball, not that I didn't love it, but now I'm doing something that I've chosen to do and that I'm enjoying."
Justin is hoping to graduate this May and transfer to a Division I school, which shouldn't be too hard. According to Grizzly Basketball Head Coach Yancey Walker, Justin has garnered interest from Big 10, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and PAC 12 schools, some of which are among the top 25 in the nation.