Boston seems like just yesterday, but our countdown has us at 20 days out from the 2018-19 college basketball season.
The topography of a freshman point guard’s season is rarely a steady incline. Instead, the complexities of college offenses mixed with adjusting to D1 athletes all over the floor usually lead to a yo-yo effect of occasional brilliance and more often than not frustrations. Turnovers tend to pile up alongside bad shots and defensive lapses.
Nojel Eastern’s freshman season was no exception. He struggled predictably as he adjusted to no longer being the best (and biggest) guard on the floor at the time. In Eastern’s first 8 games he struggled with running the offense and keeping control of the ball. He turned it over 17 times in those 8 games in just 92 minutes of game time. That’s a turnover every five minutes he was on the floor.
But Eastern’s potential on the floor is about more than just his running the point. It’s how he can play the point. At 6’6”, Eastern is a problem for any guard to defend in an unusual way. When Eastern is off the ball, he’s not a threat to space the floor, but he is capable of using his size to dominate the offensive glass. He was third on the team in offensive rebounds despite playing just the eighth most minutes on the team. He rebounded 10.3% of missed shots while on the floor, an absurd rate for a guard and the highest on the team.
His three offensive rebounds against Michigan on the road were integral to one of Purdue’s best victories of the season. It was this ability that flashed most during a season where Eastern wasn’t asked to carry the load of the offense. Not just the offensive rebounding, but his ability to do the small stuff in between that plugs gaps in a team.
Eastern never did get the keys to the offense. He averaged only 2.6 points a game and 1.1 assists (2.5 rebounds per game!) in just over 12 minutes a game off the bench. But Eastern was arguably the second best defender on the team behind Dakota Mathias. His length was consistently a problem against point guards who had trouble just bringing the ball up the floor. He’ll have to be a little less aggressive poking at dribbles. His 4.9 fouls called per 40 minutes was the second highest on the team behind Matt Haarms.
Eastern will be handed the keys this year. Besides Carsen Edwards, Eastern is the option to run the offense through. There’s a lot of seniors last year that left and with them, a ton of points and the security that allowed Eastern to be brought along slowly.
Eastern will need to score and he will need to be able to attack the rim and create baskets for his teammates. There will be less shooting around him, but more athletes. Eastern should wreak havoc in the open court. He’s long enough to finish over anyone at the rim and his length allows him to make passes smaller guards can’t. There’s a big advantage when a guard can really rebound the ball. There’s no need for outlet passes. Just watch him take off and force the defense into finding their match ups and being left with mismatches all over the floor.
For an offense that will struggle at times this year, a consistent transition attack could be the exact thing that alleviates the pressure off Carsen to create everything.
Eastern will no longer be able to just do dirty work on the court. He will have to cut down on turnovers, foul less, and have better pace attacking in the pick and roll. He’ll have to look to make plays for himself and his teammates. He’ll have to use his size and strength to bully guards who have no chance against him inside.
He’ll have to *gulp* make free throws (20-48).
But all indications have shown that Eastern has done nothing but worked on his game this summer. He kept his name in the NBA draft the same way Edwards did. He got valuable insight from scouts and kept crafting his game. He worked so hard on his jump shot that his arm was fatigued.
On a team of this many freshman, even a sophomore like Eastern seems like someone that’s been around forever. But more than likely, when he steps on the floor this year with the starters, he will also look unfamiliar. Eastern will no longer being playing the part of fifth man on the floor.
It’ll be his show.