Over the next two weeks, lead basketball reporter Derek Piper is breaking down 10 of Illinois basketball's top recruits with their updated scouting report, what they have to prove this spring on the AAU circuit and where the Illini stand with them.
Today: Nojel Eastern, combo guard/wing Evanston (Ill.)
Often lost in the discussion of Illinois' top 2017 targets is Evanston's positionless star Nojel Eastern - and he has as much upside as any backcourt prospect in the state.
Eastern picked up an Illini offer in July 2014 after an impressive showing at the Peach Jam on the 16U circuit. John Groce extended offers to Eastern and five-star big man Jeremiah Tilmon on the same day.
But Eastern wasn't a big part of the discussion last summer after suffering a dislocated ankle in May, which kept him sidelined for the rest of AAU play. The 6-foot-6 combo guard/wing responded with a strong junior campaign, though.
Eastern averaged 14.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and four assists per game on his way to being a Class 4A second-team selection. He will have plenty of suitors watching closely this spring.
Eastern has pro-style length and skill in the backcourt. Coming up as a point guard, Eastern has great handles, vision and overall savvy with his game. A growth spurt up to 6-foot-6 has added new aspects to repertoire. He can play inside and out - allowing him to take advantage of any matchup. Eastern can make plays in the lane, and he also possesses a nice lefty stroke. He isn't known for being flashy, but he has some bounce and can get above the rim.
Eastern's length also enables him to make a significant impact on the glass. His outside shot has developed quite nicely as well. Eastern is very intriguing with his versatility. He has experience playing lead guard, but he will likely be more of a fit on the wing at the next level.
What he has to prove this spring
First and foremost, Eastern has to show that he is back and better than ever after ankle surgery. There have been times when he hasn't looked 100 percent - having less explosion off his left leg. The health of his ankle will be put to the test on the EYBL circuit, which can call for four games in a 48-hour span. But Eastern was healthy enough to have a strong junior year, and he put up good numbers at the NY2LA Swish 'n Dish event last weekend.
Consistency is another key for Eastern. His scoring production has fluctuated in the past, and he'll need to show that he can be an assertive scorer game in and game out.
How he'd fit at Illinois
A look ahead at the 2017-18 depth chart shows that the Illini have a handful of off-guards and wings in place. But it's not hard to find a fit for a player that has a high level of versatility and talent. That is what Eastern possesses. He will be capable of contributing right away, and his ability to play multiple positions will make it easier for him to see the floor.
Where Illinois stands
The Illini have been in the mix longer than any of the major players in this recruitment. Groce and his staff got Eastern on campus for a visit before he started his freshman season at Evanston. Less than a year later, they were his first high-major offer.
While Eastern didn't play on the summer circuit last year, Illinois continued to pursue him and stay in contact.
"I keep in contact with Illinois a lot," Eastern told Scout.com back in December. "I try to keep them as updated as possible, and a few former MeanStreets players went there so it is of course good watching them play. I'm just watching and seeing how they would fit."
Groce was one of many coaches to watch Eastern play this past season. The staff has talked frequently with Eastern's mom, Tamala Reed, who has handled most of the recruiting duties to this point.
Right now, all that can be said is that Illinois continues to be in the mix. Eastern visited Champaign twice back in 2013, but he hasn't been back on campus in a while. In general, his recruitment still has yet to take the next step.
He has plenty of opportunities, but he has yet to narrow anything down. That is expected to happen after the spring evaluation periods, and the Illini hope to be one of the big players going forward.
Sizing up the competition
The coast-to-coast interest in Eastern's game has been plentiful, and there is a large number of suitors on the radar.
Michigan State has been the most notable during the recruiting process so far. Eastern has been on multiple visits to East Lansing, and head coach Tom Izzo came to see him play twice in February.
"It is always great when I go there," Eastern said of MSU. "Coach Izzo and Coach (Dwayne) Stephens are great guys, and it is a great campus. Michigan State is somewhere that I think I fit in well with the offense. I love their intensity in practice. Michigan State is a great environment with great people."
Eastern's most recent visit came at the end of February when he went to Purdue for their game against Maryland. The Boilermakers offered Eastern a month after the Illini back in 2014, and Matt Painter watched him last month in the regional title game.
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta watched Eastern in February. DePaul, Iowa State, Marquette, Northwestern, Seton Hall, Wisconsin and Xavier are among some other programs that were in the stands this past season. Eastern also had LSU and UCLA come visit him late last month.
This recruitment has been wide open, and Eastern will have plenty of eyes on him when the first evaluation period begins on April 15.