The Cooper boys basketball team needed someone to step up after Melvin Newbern graduated following the 2015-16 season.
Newbern’s 20.1 points-per-game average in 2015-16 would surely be hard to replace, but Jalen Justice, who averaged 5.1 points-per-game in 2015-16, set his focus on helping his team replace that production.
While Beijan Newbern, Melvin’s younger brother, stepped in to lead the Hawks in scoring with his 20.3 points-per-game average, Justice tied for second on the team with his 12.3 points-per-game mark as the Hawks’ sixth-man.
Justice’s improvement did not stop there. Justice played well for his Howard Pulley AAU team, as he was able to connect on his three-point shot often against some top competition.
“I have had a good start to the summer,” Justice said. “I did pretty well in the EYBL sections, I stepped it up against really good competition over there and we came up just short of the Peach Jam.”
Justice also played well in the Metro Summer League, where he helped lead Cooper to the league championship title. Justice scored 17 points in Cooper’s 69-46 win over Minneapolis South in the title game.
“We have been doing pretty good in the summer league,” Justice said. “We needed those W’s in our last two games to make the tournament, so we stepped it up.
“Beijan [Newbern] wasn’t there, so I had to step it up and score a lot for our team.”
While the Metro Summer League didn’t have teams’ best rosters available due to other AAU commitments, the experience left Justice feeling confident about the upcoming season.
“I feel pretty good, we’re pretty young and didn’t lose a lot other than Damien [Gordon] from our [2016-17 season] starting five,” Justice said. “I’m looking for that starting spot for next year, so I have to step it up.
“We’re going to come in and use our experience, a lot of us have at least two years,” Justice said. “We just need to handle our business.”
One season after making a name for himself as one of the team’s top scorers, Justice knows he will not be able to surprise many opponents with his scoring abilities this winter.
“I’m always looking forward to a challenge,” Justice said. “Last year they looked a lot at Beijan, but this year will be a lot different.”
While Beijan Newbern is known for his desire to drive to the basket, Justice does most of his work from the outside, using his solid shooting stroke to keep defenses from putting too many defenders near the basket. Justice hit 40 percent of his shots from three-point range last season, but he wants to build off his solid shooting stroke to put together a solid overall season in 2017-18.
“Shooting is a big part of my game, but I also have some point guard skills,” Justice said. “For Cooper I’m more of a [shooting guard] out there, so I have to create my shot on the dribble, get my teammates involved with the play and not just look for my shot, but for other people as well.
“We have a lot of scorers on the team.”
In order to put together the season he would like to have, Justice knows he has plenty of work to do before the season kicks off later this year.
“This year I just need to get in the weight room, lift and get stronger to compete at the next level,” Justice said. “I need to see where my shots are and knock them down, then everything else will click into its spot.”
Follow Sun Post sports editor Chris Chesky on Twitter at @MNSunSports or @SunSportsChris and on Facebook at SunSportsStaff.