Illinois coaches have done a great job catching up on the recruiting trail and have now started to identify potential targets in the underclassmen ranks in Illinois, including 2017 incoming freshman guard at Evanston Nojel Eastern.
Eastern will likely see a more defined role for his team come this fall, but for now he brings plenty of skills to the table that should help him contribute early in his career.
"I think I'm a combo guard and can do all things that a coach asks me to do," he said. "I can shoot, pass, rebound, dribble, play off the ball. I also play good defense."
The versatility he possesses is something Eastern knows he can use to his advantage. Despite his youth, he understands the advantages he has in matchups on the floor.
"I think it does because if I have a smaller guard on me, I can post him up and that's an advantage," Eastern said. "If I have a bigger guard on me, I can use my quickness to get around him."
Another thing Eastern really has working in his favor is his work ethic. While many players his age took their summer vacations watching tv and sitting on the couch, Eastern was hard at work in the gym getting ready for this year.
"[Some of my advantages are] my quickness, my defense, and my ball handling and shooting," he said. "I'm training right now and I've been doing to the gym and shooting on the "Gun." I've been getting in shape and working on defense."
Recruiting analyst Scott Burgess of Chicago Hoops has seen Eastern play on several occasions and gave the following evaluation of Eastern's game:
"Eastern is a tremendous passer with great vision in both the half court and in transition. He handles the ball extremely well for his age being able to get virtually anywhere he wants on the floor. During July, he also showed the ability to score in the lane as well as knock down his left-handed jump shot. He is in the top group of 2017 prospects in Illinois in the very early stages."
Back in the days of Benji Wilson at Simeon, the Wolverines matched up against a tough Evanston team several times, including the state finals. Eastern is hoping he can bring his team back to that point and lead them down-state by the time his career is done, all by being a team player.
"I'm ready to compete this high school season and over time," he said. "This year I just want to compete and get my name out there and have a great season. I'd love to put Evanston on the map. I think I can too."
He continued, "Our coach is a great coach and I think I can be a good enough player and help the other players improve and help their game too. That's a big part of what we're going for. Our coach motivates us and having a motivator on the court helps the game."
One school Eastern recently took a visit to was Illinois. He came away impressed with several aspects of the visit and spoke of it well.
I like the technology they have in in the weight room and they do "before" and "after" pictures," he said. "I like how they have tutoring and study halls where you can always get help. The coaches have great chemistry and are great coaches. They're eager and they have a really nice campus. I liked that about it. Also, having access to the gym 24 hours is good too."
The style of play at Illinois as well as the coaching theory of Head Coach John Groce caught Eastern's attention as well.
"He's let's guys play and gives us freedom to do what we need to do within a set," Eastern said. "I can play uptempo or half court."
With one Big Ten visit down, Eastern has plans to see a few more as well as other programs across the country. Just a freshman, the experience is one that Eastern is looking forward to.
"I'm planning on going to Ohio State and Indiana. Marquette, Purdue, Oregon State, Florida State, and Oregon, are also showing interest," he said. "It'll be nice to get to see some of these different areas of the country."
Eastern lets the attention go to his head, but not in a negative way. Instead of getting arrogant, he uses it as motivation to continue to get better, and believes that in the process, he can make his teammates better and get them noticed as well.
"It gets me motivated and makes me want to work harder," he said. "I think having attention on me will help get my teammates noticed. I'm not going to ball hog. I'll play my game and help them get involved and noticed."
And through this whole process, he will have lots of support, especially from his mother, who will guide him every step of the way.
"It's good having that support," Eastern said. "If I didn't have that support I probably wouldn't be where I am now. My mom will be going on all these visits with me."
In the mean time, Eastern will continue to work on his game, taking pointers and tips from some of the best guards in the game.
"Growing up I always watched highlights of point guards like Chris Paul to see what they do," he said. "Some of the drills and workouts they do to improve my game."