Once overlooked, all eyes now on men’s basketball senior captain


Courtesy of Bruce Clarke/Sac State Athletics

Sacramento State senior forward Justin Strings became the 15th men’s basketball player in program history to score 1,000 career points after he notched 19 against Colorado State in a season-opening 72-61 loss on Friday.

Angel Guerrero

When Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz first started recruiting senior forward Justin Strings in high school, he thought he was a little chubby, but talented nonetheless.

Six years later, Strings is the team captain at Sac State and is the 15th player in men’s basketball program history to score 1,000 career points after he notched 19 against Colorado State in a season-opening 72-61 loss on Friday.

“Every year he’s made himself a better athlete: gotten stronger, faster, more athletic, and then, of course, been really committed to getting better,” Katz said after admitting that Strings wasn’t a very athletic player at first. “I think something that he’s really improved on is his passing. He’s going to get double teamed a lot, so he’s going to have to become a better passer.”

Strings, who led the Hornets in scoring with 15.9 points per game last season, saw these double teams right away against Colorado State, and its a trend that will continue for opposing defenses. However, his teammates — such as senior guard Marcus Graves — believe he can hang with the extra attention.

“In my eyes, he’s been the best player in the Big Sky,” Graves said. “I’ve seen it since the day I got here when we were freshmen, how good of a player he can be with just how versatile he is, (and) I think he’s ready for that.”

Matthew Dyer – The State Hornet
Sacramento State forward Justin Strings attempts a shot against Montana State in the Big Sky Tournament on March 8, 2016 at the Reno Events Center in Reno, Nevada.

Growing up in the County of Los Angeles, Strings wasn’t much accustomed to having all eyes on him in a basketball scene where they’re hundreds of other talented players circulating the area. He said he was written off as just being “OK” before he attended Mira Costa High School — where he sprouted from 5-foot-11 his freshman year to 6-foot-7 during his senior season — in Manhattan Beach, California.

“A lot of people didn’t want me to be on their (Amateur Athletic Union) team or didn’t want me to be on their high school teams,” Strings said. “Mira Costa was an opportunity for me to prove people wrong and to have a place where I could shine as well as learn how to be a leader and how to get better as a player overall.”

Continuing his tendency of being overlooked, Strings wasn’t discovered by Sac State until the program was out recruiting one of his teammates. However, Katz said he took note of Strings’ big shoulders, long arms and skill level immediately thereafter.

After graduating in 2014, Strings became the first player from his school to earn a Division I basketball scholarship since 2001 when he chose Sac State over schools such as Cal Poly, UC Irvine and UC Davis.

“The (Sac State) coaching staff truly took an investment in me, and I felt that what I was hearing from them was more real than from other schools,” Strings said. “Other schools, I felt like I was the second or third guy that they wanted at the position. When here, it was like, ‘We’re recruiting you, we want you and we’re not looking at anyone else.’ ”

As a freshman, Strings only saw 4.2 minutes per game on a veteran team that made its first postseason appearance since 1988 and won the most games (21) in the program’s Division I history. However, what he lacked in play time was made up for in learning under future professional basketball players such as Dylan Garrity, Mikh McKinney, Eric Stuteville and Nick Hornsby.

“As a mentor, I’d say Nick (had one of the biggest impacts on me because he) took me under his wing as soon as I got here, and I really looked up to him,” Strings said. “And then also Mikh, who is arguably one of the greatest players to come through Sac State.”

Strings, now 21, has taken over the leadership responsibilities for the Hornets after playing in all 62 games from his sophomore to junior years while averaging over 15 points per game in both seasons. During that span, Strings also earned Big Sky honorable mention (2015-16) and second-team all-conference honors (2016-17).

Before the start of the 2017-18 regular season on Friday, Strings also garnered some attention after he scored 44 points (shooting 19-of-23 from the field) in an exhibition game over UC Santa Cruz at the Nest. This single-game point total would’ve been the most in the Hornets’ Division I history, which began in 1991, had it been a regular-season contest.

“Each day he’s taking his role as our leader to heart,” Sac State sophomore forward Joshua Patton said. “He works his butt off each day just trying to get better and better, and as we all saw, (he made a statement on Friday with his play and is) putting everyone on notice.”

After this season is over, the next logical step for Strings would be to follow in the footsteps of his mentors and play professionally. Katz said there’s no doubt Strings will accomplish this while also remaining humble in the process.

“He kind of doesn’t really fit the mold (of the typical guy) today who’s maybe a little bit about himself and wants everybody to know how good he is,” Katz said. “I think Justin is pretty comfortable (letting) the games speak for us.”

Basketball fans will find out how much more Strings has to say with his play Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. against Notre Dame de Namur University at the Nest.