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‘That dude’s just relentless’: How Justin Bean became a reliable double-double producer for Utah State

Utah State forward Justin Bean (12) celebrates after taking a charge from Nevada’s Jordan Caroline with 57 seconds left in USU’s 81-76 upset of the No. 12 Wolf Pack on March 2, 2019, at the Spectrum in Logan.
Jeff Hunter, For the Deseret News

LOGAN — While Justin Bean’s style of play would suggest that the sophomore forward has “Eye of the Tiger” playing in a continuous loop in his head at a very high volume, there is proof out there that Bean can actually dial things back on occasion.

Last fall, the 6-foot-7 Aggie posted a couple of videos on YouTube of himself playing covers of “Over the Rainbow” and “Imagine” on the ukulele. While Bean’s vocal abilities won’t be confused with Judy Garland or John Lennon, there is something comforting about seeing the former walk-on from Oklahoma sweetly delivering a timeless classic on a simple instrument.

Of course, Bean’s also not wearing a face mask (he suffered a broken nose during a preseason practice), doesn’t have braces on his upper teeth (he had two teeth bashed in during the Utah State’s season-opening win over Montana State) and displays no cuts or fresh bruises (seemingly every game) in those videos, so he looks a lot more like a gentle returned missionary than the Aggie most likely to have the terms “full-tilt,” “all-out” and “hard-nosed” repeatedly attached to his name by every TV announcer that calls a USU game.

Utah State sophomore forward Justin Bean goes up for a score against Denver during the Aggies’ 97-56 victory against Denver on Nov. 12, 2019, at the Spectrum in Logan.
Jeff Hunter, For the Deseret News

“We have a lot of guys that work as hard as they can and play super hard,” USU head coach Craig Smith says, “but obviously Justin’s just a different guy. He’s so springy. He’s so active. He’s got a nose for the ball. He’s like a middle linebacker out there, you know what I mean? He just finds the ball; the ball just comes to him all of the time. And that’s not an accident. It’s a talent.”

And that “talent” came unbelievably cheap for the Aggies, who initially welcomed the player currently sixth in the nation in rebounding at 11.4 boards per game as a preferred walk-on prior to the start of the 2017-18 season.

Bean likely would have been more sought after coming out of high school, but after averaging nearly 22 points and 11 rebounds per game during the regular season of his junior year, Bean tore an ACL in practice as Southmoore High School while preparing for the state playoffs that February. He had surgery in April and miraculously managed to return in October in time for the start of his senior season, but Bean was unable to put up the same kind of numbers, averaging 16 points and nine rebounds per game.

During that period, Bean and his father, Gordon, reached out to a number of college basketball programs, the majority of them in the Intermountain West. A native of Utah County, Gordon Bean played basketball at Ricks College and Idaho State University, and was a part of the last ISU team to advance to the NCAA tournament. Although he and the 16th-seeded Bengals ended up losing to top-seeded UNLV, 95-70, in the first round at the Huntsman Center, the elder Bean wanted his son to have some similar experiences.

By the time Justin was called to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Nevada Reno Mission, it appeared that he might be headed to the University of Utah as a walk-on. But during the 2016-17 season, former USU assistant coach Spencer Nelson received an email from Gordon Bean with video highlights from Justin’s prep career, and after watching just about 10 seconds, Nelson remembers thinking, “This kid has a chance.”

A native of Pocatello who grew up watching Idaho State basketball, the all-time Aggie great also served a mission in Oklahoma, so Nelson admits to having a “soft spot in my heart” right away for Gordon and Justin Bean.

“Certain things just transfer from level to level, and after watching more video, you could just tell that Justin played really, really hard and had a nose for the ball,” Nelson says. “He also had a great feel for the game. … At that point, I went to (former USU head coach Tim) Duryea and said, ‘I think we have a walk-on candidate.’”

Realizing that other programs were showing some interest in Bean, Nelson took advantage of some fortuitous scheduling. The Aggies would soon be playing Nevada in Reno, and, at the time, Bean just happened to be serving on the University of Nevada campus. A call to the mission home in Nevada led to a lunch summit at a Reno-area Subway restaurant that included Nelson, Bean and Bean’s mission president and several sandwiches.

“The mission president was kind of trying to sell me on Justin, while I was trying to sell Justin on Utah State,” Nelson recalls. “We didn’t have a scholarship at the time for him, but I really did want him to come walk-on at Utah State and Utah State was lucky to get him.”

After completing his two-year mission, Bean showed up in Logan in the summer of 2017 just as the Aggies were getting ready to go embark on a 10-day basketball tour of Italy. Nelson says Bean played really hard “but looked like a chicken with its head cut off” because everything was going so fast for him.

But by the time Utah State got around to playing a preseason exhibition game, Nelson says Bean made a play he’ll never forget: After scoring a couple of baskets early in the game, he was running down the middle of the floor in transition when a guard made an awkwardly timed pass that could have been all bad for the Aggies. But a hustling Bean turned it into a great play by making a touch pass that led to a layup for another teammate.

“It just clicked then for me: This kid is going to be good,” Nelson said. “Although he’s progressed at a much faster pace than I thought he would, to be honest with you.”

Bean ended up redshirting during the 2017-18 season, a 17-17 campaign that ended up being the final year at Utah State for Duryea and his staff. At the press conference announcing his hiring in March 2018, new head coach Craig Smith was asked to describe his style of play.

“We’re going to be the toughest dudes out there,” Smith proclaimed. “We’re going to be high-fiving, diving on the floor, playing aggressive man-to-man defense. We’re going to push the pace, but we are going to play on attack. We are going to be in attack mode all the time.”

Although Aggie fans didn’t know it at the time, that now seems to be the perfect description of the way Justin Bean plays basketball. However, Bean himself admits he was a little hesitant to accept that Smith really meant what he had said.

But Bean quickly discovered that he and Smith are kindred spirits when it comes to basketball.

“He said in our first individual meeting together that I was his type of player, but I really didn’t know if he was just saying that or not,” Bean says. “... But after we started practicing, he gave us a lot of free rein as players to just be players, and I came to love coach Smith’s style of play.”

Bean literally exploded onto the scene prior to the start of the 2018-19 season by winning the slam dunk contest at a “meet the team” event. Thanks to his athleticism, energy and enthusiastic attitude, Utah State fans who knew little of the exercise science major prior to that night suddenly started to relish every appearance, holding up cans of beans in the stands while chanting “Beeeean!” whenever he made a play.

“I honestly thought they were booing me the first time because it’s kind of just a low roar,” Bean admits with a chuckle. “I replayed the last few plays in my head trying to remember if I had done anything wrong. After a while I listened a little bit harder and picked up on what they were saying, which was really humbling.”

Thanks to his inspired play during the first half of last season, Bean — and teammate Abel Porter — was elevated from walk-on status to scholarship athlete in late January. He continued to back up that trust from Smith and his staff down the stretch, coming off the bench to average 4.1 points, 3.8 minutes and 12.1 minutes per game for an Aggie team that won 28 games, took the regular-season and postseason conference titles and went to the NCAA Tournament.

“My Dad used to always show me his watch; now we both have watches,” Bean notes. “His is leather, while mine is a Fossil watch. I think mine is a bit cooler.”

Although preseason expectations were historically high for the Aggies coming into this season, things certainly haven’t been easy for Bean this season thanks to the broken nose that led to him wearing a mask until recently, as well as the broken teeth that led to oral surgery in the middle of the night and getting braces again for the first time since high school.

But overcoming challenges like that just seems to be second nature for Justin Bean.

“The guy got a double-double with two fractured teeth,” Smith says of Bean’s 13-point, 10-rebound performance in USU’s win over Montana State, one he followed up with 18 points and nine rebounds just nights later in the Aggies’ blowout of Weber State. “He never complained. Some guys would have been out three weeks with that, but he was out there competing again.”

Through USU’s first 14 games of his sophomore season, Bean has averaged 13.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 30.3 minutes per night. He already has 160 rebounds — 51 more than he had all of last season — and is fourth in the nation with eight double-doubles. If the season ended today, Bean’s 11.4 rpg would leave him with the 15th best average ever for an Aggie. But more notably, he would be the only player in the Top 20 who averaged more than 10 rebounds a game for a season since Mike Santos pulled down 11.3 rebounds a night during the 1976-77 season.

Bean’s elevated play this year is the most obvious reason the Aggies are off to a 12-2 start, even though sophomore center Neemias Queta has hardly been able to play this season due to a knee injury. In fact, Bean’s offensive rebound and putback with 0.2 seconds left in overtime was the difference in USU’s 76-74 win over South Florida, and he totaled 14 points and 13 rebounds while playing all 45 minutes of Utah State’s overtime victory against Fresno State.

It’s obvious that playing a few extra minutes doesn’t bother Bean.

“That dude’s just relentless,” Smith says of his sophomore forward. “It got to the point where I knew that we hadn’t pulled him out (against Fresno State), but you know what, we’re going to ride him because the guy’s like the Energizer bunny. I don’t know if he ever gets tired.”