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Phelps School's Justin Houser follows childhood dream to Penn State

06/28/2024, 9:00am EDT
By Joseph Santoliquito

Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)

Justin Houser grew up in Harrisburg. The Phelps School’s 7-foot, 215-pound rising senior center grew up enamored by Penn State football, and that spread to anything associated with Penn State athletics.

It had always been Houser’s dream to one day wear the blue-and-white of Penn State, and on Wednesday, June 26, Houser turned his vision into a reality when he gave Nittany Lions’ head coach Mike Rhoades a verbal commitment during an unofficial visit.

Justin Houser (above) committed to Penn State earlier this week. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“Growing up in Harrisburg, it really had always been a dream for me to one day play for Penn State,” Houser said. “I would watch the football and basketball games when I was a kid. It has become a reality now.”

This past season, Houser averaged 13 points and 9 rebounds a game, according to Phelps’ coach Trey Morin.

Penn State beat out Temple and St. Joe’s for Houser.

“It really boiled down to Temple and Penn State, and it is more than just a dream of playing there,” Houser continued. “Coach Rhoades plays a style of basketball that fits me and a style I really like to play in in college. He told me he wants me to use me as a stretch five, coming out more on the floor and blocking shots.”

Houser also said he found making the commitment before his senior year will make his final year of high school basketball far more enjoyable.

“To be honest, this was a big relief for me,” Houser said. “I know I can just go out and play my game the rest of AAU season and my senior year. I will not have to worry about playing in front of college coaches anymore. I can play relaxed and enjoy the time, and keep developing.

“My goal is to keep working.”

Houser will be the first recruit of Rhoades’ 2025 class. He’s the second member of his family to play Division I hoops, following in the footsteps of his older brother Tyler Houser, who averaged 10.8 ppg as a freshman at VMI in 2022-23 and then 4.8 ppg and 2.2 rpg as a sophomore at Delaware last season.

After six years at Virginia Commonwealth, where he led the Rams to three NCAA Tournament appearances, a 129-60 overall record and 72-32 Atlantic 10 Conference record, Rhoades finished his first year at Penn State this past season with a 16-17 overall mark (9-11 Big 10).

Houser (above, in April) is a mobile left-handed 7-footer with range. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

In 2023-24, The Nittany Lions had upset wins over No. 11 Wisconsin, 87-83, and later in the season over No. 12 Illinois, 90-89.

Penn State was sixth in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 75.1 points a game, while defensively the Nittany Lions were near the bottom of the conference, allowing opponents to score 73.4 points a game.

Houser’s size should mesh well for what Rhoades likes to do.

“Justin has a plus wingspan, runs well and works on,” said Morin, who returned as Phelps’ head coach last season. “Justin was not lacking for recruitment and there were no doubts he would play Division I. He is from the Harrisburg area and his family has enjoyed going to Penn State events.

“Very few kids get the chance to play at the school that they grew up hoping to play for.”

Jimmy Martelli, the son of St. Joe’s legendary coach Phil Martelli, is one Rhoades’ staff and played a major role in Houser’s recruitment.

“My job as a high school coach is to give my kids the best options of what the best fit is, and when you have someone like Justin who always dreamed of playing at Penn State, it works out well,” said Morin, who saw his other star, Will Riley, a Canadian 6-foot-8 small forward reclassify and announce Sunday his commitment to Illinois. “We had two kids committing to Big Ten schools, so I am very happy. Justin is a multi-skilled five, and they don’t play as fast at Penn State as Rhoades did at VCU, but I think they are starting to get there. Stylistically, it is a pretty good fit.”

Making it better is Houser will have a year of growth to learn under newly inbound 6-foot-11 Northern Illinois transfer Yanic Konan Niederhauser.

“Coach Martelli played a pretty big role in me going to Penn State, and he has been recruiting me the last year-and-a-half, talking to me all the time,” Houser said. “I like where coach Rhoades will use me, high on pick-and-rolls. Reading the pick-and-rolls, I will hopefully get the chance to pick-and-pop threes.

“I have to keep developing the skills I need, but I know I will have to put on weight to be more of a factor in the Big Ten. My goal is to play around 230 pounds by the time I get to Penn State. I will need to put the weight on for the physical way the Big Ten plays.”

Defensively, Houser said he needs to keep developing his shot blocking, but essentially the added weight will be a big help against the Big Ten’s center.

“I’m really excited for my senior year,” Houser said. “I think we have a chance to go far and win the states (PAISAA State Championship Tournament, which provides a postseason tournament for the Inter-Ac and independent schools like Phelps).”

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here 

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