Werner gaining confidence in walk-on role


For many teenagers, high school and college are times to start prioritizing life goals and planning futures.

However, for Justin Werner, a freshman guard on the Wildcat basketball team, that time came a few years earlier on his elementary school playground.

“I started playing basketball in about fifth grade, just at recess with my friends and stuff,” said Werner, a product of Washburn Rural High School. “Probably around middle school was when I started to get really serious about it and started to practice a lot.”

Athletics were nothing new to the Topeka native, as the majority of his family participated in sports at the collegiate level. His parents, Diane and James, were both swimmers at the University of Illinois, and his sister, Sandy, was a standout on the K-State volleyball team from 2003-06.

“I grew up around sports,” he said. “There was always some kind of sports activity going on around our house.”

Carrying on the family tradition, Werner continued to hone his basketball skills and developed into a star for the Junior Blues. As a senior, he led the team in several statistical categories, including points scored and 3-pointers. By the end of the season, he had scored more points than anyone in the city and was named to all-city and all-state teams by several media outlets.

“Justin’s senior year was when he really blossomed,” said Craig Cox, Werner’s high school coach. “Throughout his high school career, he put in a lot of time in the weight room and worked on developing his 3-point range. He was able to not only shoot the ball well, but also drive and pull up and go to the rim. That made him a really tough guy to defend.”

The hard work and accolades started to pay off as Werner began receiving scholarship offers from small schools in the area, including Washburn University in his hometown, but he had already made up his mind that he wanted to call Bramlage Coliseum his home.

“I had mostly Division II offers and [junior college] offers, but Division I has that special interest to it,” he said. “With my sister going [to K-State], I felt like I liked the place a lot whenever I came up here to watch her play. It’s where I wanted to be.”

That chance came when Cox was contacted by K-State late last season.

“Brad Underwood called me and asked about Justin,” Cox said. “We visited about him and Brad said that’s just what they needed: a guy who could come in and shoot the ball. Justin just happened to be in the gym and I went out and told him K-State was asking about him. He gave me a smile from ear to ear, and I knew right then that it was the possibility of a dream come true for him.”

Werner might be living his dream, but he’s doing so while getting minimal playing time, averaging 1.4 points in just 5.9 minutes per contest. While his role is small now, head coach Frank Martin said he does not think the walk-on’s intensity and shooting accuracy have diminished since his high school days.

“What I love about him is he’s tougher than six pit bulls,” Martin said. “He comes into practice every day and he just competes at a high, high level. He’s got a skill that’s eventually going to evolve into something that’s really going to help us, and that’s his ability to shoot the basketball.”

Werner has shown flashes of brilliance in his few opportunities, including his performance against Idaho State on Jan. 3 when he reeled off 11 points and grabbed three rebounds – both career-highs – in 11 minutes of action.

Martin believes that Werner’s natural abilities will eventually lead to a more significant role with the team as he continues to improve his skills and better his understanding of the program and its goals.

“When you look at players, you want to see if they can do something to impact the game,” he said. “As Justin continues to grow defensively and to understand what we do, coupled with the toughness that he plays with and the skill he possesses to shoot, he’s someone that I see having one heck of a future here with us.”