Evanston sophomore Nojel Eastern has been a big name locally since he started picking up college scholarship offers as an eighth grader. All the heat around him has settled down a bit over the past two years, though. He’s had a couple of injuries and played well but not spectacularly. Evanston has been good, but not great.
Saturday at Glenbard East, Eastern lived up to all the promise and potential and his team secured its biggest win of the season. The 6-5 point guard was confident, powerful and creative. He scored a career-high 32 points to lead the Wildkits to a 66-63 upset win over No. 10 Riverside-Brookfield.
Eastern shot 11-for-19 from the field, grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists. He made a 3-pointer, created space on his own to drain several mid-range jumpers and got to the rim. He scored double-figures with both hands.
“I’m really right-handed,” Eastern said. “I just shoot with my left hand.”
Evanston coach Mike Ellis was impressed.
“He’s very similar to Shaun Livingston,” said Ellis, who was an assistant coach to the veteran NBA point guard at Peoria Richwoods. “He’s gonna make your team better.”
Evanston led by three at the half and by four after three quarters. Eastern hit two free throws with five seconds left to give the Wildkits (13-6) a crucial three-point advantage. Riverside-Brookfield’s Daniko Jackson (11 points) had a chance to tie the game, but his 3-point attempt rimmed out at the buzzer.
Eastern’s performance overshadowed another sophomore, Riverside-Brookfield’s Jalen Clanton. The six-foot guard finished with 20 points. Sam Johnson, a 6-7 forward, added 20 points and 11 rebounds. Mike Berscheid scored 11 for the Bulldogs (17-2).
“Evanston is extremely athletic,” Riverside-Brookfield coach Tom McCloskey said. “Everything you do is harder against a team with that athleticism.”
Senior Elijah Henry was a key factor for the Wildkits in the post, finishing with 12 points and eight rebounds.
“We talked before the game about getting (Henry) going,” Ellis said. “He had a nice dunk to get us some momentum.”
Eastern has the ability to be the best player in the state other than Jalen Brunson. Time will tell if Saturday was the first glimpse of that, or just his biggest moment of the season.
“He’s a leader,” Ellis said. “It’s rare that you have to tell a kid to be more selfish.”
It’s entirely possible this is just an example of what a completely healthy Eastern can do.
“I’m way healthier,” Eastern said. “Ice baths, treatment, stretching a lot (has all helped). I have to come out with (Saturday’s) mindset every game. I just took advantage of the smaller defenders.”
Eastern currently has scholarship offers from Bradley, Illinois, Purdue and UNLV. Expect that number to quadruple over the next few years.
“He’s just a sophomore,” Ellis said. “They will come in a flood.”