Eastern on visit with Illinois: 'It got me thinking about them a lot'

Four-star guard Nojel Eastern discusses his game, the wave of schools coming at him and his in-school visit with Illinois last week.

Four-star Evanston combo guard Nojel Eastern has been on the minds of the Illini coaching staff for quite some time - holding an Illinois offer for as long as anyone in the 2017 class.

Eastern has pro-style length and skill in his 6-foot-6 frame, and his versatility and high-level basketball IQ allows him to so many things well on the court.

He averaged 10.3 points, five rebounds and 2.5 assists per game this past weekend in Indianapolis on the EYBL circuit. Eastern helped lead MeanStreets to an opening night win on Friday against Team CP3 with 12 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals.

His impact on the floor and overall potential has programs across the country in pursuit. Eastern listed seven schools that came to visit him last week at Evanston during the contact period.

His sit-down with Illini head coach John Groce and assistant Paris Parham last Monday got him thinking about the home-state orange and blue.

"It was great. They talked about me representing my area. To have 'Illinois' across my chest and represent the state of Illinois, not a lot of people have that opportunity," Eastern said. "It was a great presentation. It got me thinking about them a lot."

Illinois has kept in constant contact with him and his mom, Tamala Reed - who was also there for the visit. Eastern said the relationship has grown since the Illini extended an offer in July 2014.

"Coach Groce has been keeping in contact with me a lot more," he said. "When the head coach is keeping in contact with you, that shows a lot."

The Illini are in the midst of a pivotal 2017 class chase, which is highlighted by a collection of in-state talent that could be game-changing in unison. Illinois already holds commitments from two of the top seven players in the state: Peoria Manual combo guard Da'Monte Williams and Belleville East wing Javon Pickett.

Adding to that with guys like Eastern, Jeremiah Tilmon, Jordan GoodwinChristian Negron and Justin Smith is paramount. That is the clearest route for resurgence for a program that has been relatively dormant in recent years.

"They also brought that up as well," Eastern said. "They consider the 2017 class as one of the best classes. They want to do something special. Bring in good, talented players together at different positions and represent their hometown. It would be a great experience if something like that happens."

Illinois is not alone in their push, though. Like others in the state, Eastern has a growing list of suitors. He met with Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Seton Hall, Vanderbilt and Xavier last week as well.

Eastern noted that his meeting with Xavier head coach Chris Mack and assistant Luke Murray was another one that stood out.

"It went great. It was amazing," he said. "The presentation they showed me - Xavier is a great school."

Ohio State extended an offer during their meeting last week, and they watched him multiple times throughout the season. Michigan State has been a strong player since offering him last May, and Eastern visited East Lansing last fall.

Purdue was one of Eastern's first high-major offers, and he visited there for a game this past season. Still months away from a decision, Eastern has plenty of options.

"I'm an open guy. I never grew up with a college favorite or a fan of a college," he said. "I'm just trying to finish this AAU season out and see how things go from there. Building relationships with coaches, and probably around the end of the summer, I'll cut my list down towards around five."

Unlike some other recruitments, Eastern's has stayed rather low-key in terms of leaders and the like. According to his mom, that has been intentional.

"To be honest with you, we've been trying to stay a little under the radar with his recruitment and stuff," Reed said. "We're going to wait until July to see what schools are for real in terms of what they're saying, what they're thinking - it's just so early in this process."

"He doesn't know and I don't know right now. No number-one. No number-two. No favorites."

Decisions will be made down the line, but until then, Eastern and his mom want to do what's right in their minds.

"I don't want one school thinking they're favorites over another. We don't want to get the wrong perception out there," Reed said. "Just know that it's a process and we are taking our absolute time. No rush. Right now, he's just focused on getting better as a player - on and off the court. Everything else will come."

That improvement starts with Eastern becoming more consistent with his lefty stroke, while also developing his physical skills.

"My jump shot and my body, such as speed and agility. Side-to-side shuttle quickness and just my overall game," Eastern said.

He is back on the AAU circuit this spring after missing all of last summer with an ankle injury. Eastern came back with a strong junior campaign at Evanston by averaging 14.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and four assists per game, while being a Class 4A second-team selection.

Reed said she has seen her son grow in many areas since the injury.

"For one, he is more mentally focused. He is physically bigger. He's worked on his shot a lot," she said. "I would say mentally, he's not the same person than when he got hurt. Physically, he's not the same person before he got hurt. He worked on his shot a lot during the time he was off and through his rehab."

Programs have taken notice, and Eastern wants them to notice him as a point guard. Eastern plays on the wing with MeanStreets, as Alonzo Verge and Evan Gilyard handle the lead guard duties.

But there's no question Eastern makes plays with the ball in his hands. Coaches are selling him on doing the same at the next level.

"About 95 percent of the schools are recruiting me for a point guard," Eastern said.

Reed echoed that, but she added that his versatility adds even more value and opportunities for him to see the floor.

"Most coaches are saying to me that they're recruiting him as a point guard. That's what he is," Reed said. "But his ability to play multiple positions is even more intriguing through the eyes of what he can be. He's a basketball player. That's the key point. He can play a multitude of positions on the court. But in their eyes - in how he runs his team and how he leads his team - he has point guard qualities. But he's a guy you can insert anywhere on your offense."

There are many factors that go into a recruitment, and Reed talked about what will be important to them when teams make their pitch.

"I'm sure he's like any other kid in his position. Just going to a school that not only wants him, but needs him," Reed said. "Sorting that out is going to be real tough. He wants to play at the next level like anybody else, and how can they get him there? What methods can they use to help that? Education is always key."

Expressing need won't be an issue for Illinois. Groce needs to lock up as many of the state's top hoopers as he can with the microscope lense focused in on this all-important class.

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