It’s always better to be safe and cautious when spewing about and hyping incoming freshmen at the high school level.
The Hoops Report will continue to take that approach as for every Derrick Rose, Jereme Richmond, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor — freshmen you see and immediately just know — there are a dozen others that age who really don’t justify the hyperbole they receive as youngsters.
The debut (if we can call summer play a debut) of Nojel Eastern at Evanston, however, deserves a little attention. Coach Mike Ellis’ Wildkits opened their summer action at the Hoop Mountain Shootout at West Aurora in the middle of June. While Eastern may not have made a jaw-dropping impact, he certainly made a splash.
But anytime you write about a player — any player, it seems — who has yet to do a single thing at the high school level or has even taken a high school class yet, the expectations immediately rise. Those expectations typically escalate beyond where they should and it all can become unnecessary and cumbersome.
“Nojel just needs to concentrate on being a leader, being a great teammate, doing the little things to get better and focus on winning,” says Ellis. “All the other stuff will take care of itself.”
First and foremost, Eastern clearly showed he can play at the varsity level. He looked like he belonged. Eastern didn’t look out of place, even though it was his first true varsity basketball experience. The 6-1 guard with great length – he’s all legs and arms right now — dropped in a three-pointer here and there, showed advanced vision and passing skills and handles the ball. He has an advanced feel for the game for a player so young.
“His understanding of the game is way beyond his years,” says Ellis. “The game comes naturally to him. But he knows he has a lot to work on. That’s what I’ve appreciated about him, that he works hard at it.”
A quick, first glance at Eastern and he reminds you of a young version of former Rock Island star Chasson Randle as a young player, the former Mr. Basketball winner who is playing at Stanford — long, lanky, physically still maturing and who plays with basketball instincts. Better yet, like Randle, you see a prospect who is blessed with potential. Now it’s a matter of developing the tools he has.
As the July evaluation period opens this week, college coaches will sit on the seniors they’ve offered and get out and evaluate as many sophomores and juniors as it can over the next three weekends. There isn’t a lot of time to take in freshmen at this point. But Eastern is one player in the Class of 2017 in Illinois worth taking an early look at.
Sure, Eastern is physically undeveloped at this point, will force a few things and make typical freshman mistakes. And, yes, there is a lot more development needed and work to be put in by the young player. But of the small number of incoming freshmen the Hoops Report has seen thus far in the Class of 2017, Eastern has been the most impressive.
There is a long way to go, but with the right mindset and playing under a first-rate coach like Ellis for four years, it will be fun to watch his progress as a player.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport