Purdue’s basketball program has shifted. They will go from a team full of seniors to a team of youth. They have their star in Carsen Edwards who will try to get even better after being the best shooting guard in the country last year. But he will need help, particularly scoring the ball. Dakota Mathias, PJ Thompson, Isaac Haas, and Vincent Edwards leave Purdue as one of the most successful classes in school history. They will also be taking nearly fifty points per game with them.
Who will step up to help put the ball in the basket?
Odds so far:
To watch Nojel Eastern play basketball is to become complicit with a theoretical experiment, a hypothetical curiosity. He’s a mirage. A 6’6” point guard with a 6’8” arm span and crouched knees and a wide base in a world thirsty for anything to reign back all the three-pointers. His arms are long and constantly prodding and probing his match-up, grabbing and holding him against him, knowing he is bigger and faster and more of a pain in the ass than almost anyone in the B10.
To acquiesce to the idea of Eastern as the head of an offense, an inverted anchor of a defense, is a beautiful compromise to a game of basketball that has changed from ruthless physicality to subtle shiftiness and quick launches. Can a guard still control the game by just being more physical than his opposition? That will likely be a thesis statement at the end of this season, whether the answer is yes or no is still unknown.
We saw it in stretches last year. Eastern had the enviable but frustrating position of playing behind a senior point guard. The show was rarely ever going to be his, but that also meant the pressure to create or run an offense also wasn’t his. He could just be. His being is a potentially frightening concept for other coaches in the B10.
Eastern struggled to start the season. He was no longer the biggest or quickest guy on the court like high school. He didn’t just get to run pick and rolls and create shots for himself and his teammates. Teams didn’t guard him from the perimeter at all.
But as the year went on, and once Big Ten play started, Eastern started to find himself. He’s relentless on defense. He presses against his man. He man handles them. He’s always poking at dribbles and did I mention? He’s huge. His 6’8” wingspan allowed him to get his fingertips on a lot of dribbles. Point guards looked uncomfortable as they shifted around to put their asses between themselves and Eastern. It didn’t really help. He’s not scrawny. Point guards aren’t going to move him. So he still gets in there, still disrupts there dribble until they give up the ball and run away from the action to prevent Eastern to cause an even greater disruption.
On offense, Eastern wasn’t as effective with the ball as his high school pedigree might have predicted. The motion offense is perfect for point guards who can shoot and struggle to create their own shots. For point guards who need to dribble and probe the defense, it’s somewhat limiting. There was a learning curve and Eastern never really did establish himself as the pivot of the offense.
But he did take over stretches of games. He did it by bullying his man inside, grabbing offensive rebounds and getting easy put-backs. Eastern grabbed over 10% of Purdue misses when he was on the floor. A comically high number for a point guard and one that led the team despite having two players on the team standing over 7’2”. He was third on the team in offensive rebounds in total despite only averaging 12.6 minutes a game.
He was downright magnificent at Michigan in the first of three match-ups between the two teams despite only scoring four points. He had three huge offensive rebounds in the game, most coming in the second half, and were momentum stealers against a hostile crowd and team that gave Purdue fits. Eastern was one of the few matchups tilted in Purdue’s favor.
But - and get ready you precious readers - he can’t shoot. He struggled to finish at the rim last year, took only 9 three-pointers, and shot an abysmal 20 of 48 from the free throw line. That’s a problem. A big one. Because a player like Eastern should live on the line. His strength and shiftiness allows him to bully guards at the rim. His size makes him a challenge for big men trying to protect the rim, but you just have to do better from the line than just under 42%.
He’s spent so much time on his shot this summer that his muscles were actually sore from it. That’s a good start, especially when it comes to stretching the floor. He doesn’t need to be Steph Curry from the perimeter, but he does need to at least be Terrone Johnson. But free throws are always tricky. His fundamentals are awful. There’s a weird twirl in his shot, a herky jerky motion, and that’s to say nothing of whatever mental gymnastics you have to do to get over knowing you aren’t a good free throw shooter.
Eastern would be the easy choice for second leading scorer behind Edwards. He’s going to have the ball in his hands. He gets enough easy points off offensive rebounds to make him a threat to collect points, and he will have a whole year under his belt at the college level now. He just needs to make his free throws to capitalize.
A player like Eastern, used to being the biggest and best athlete on the court, sometimes needs that first year just to realize that they have to change things up a bit and get used to going against players who aren’t nearly as overwhelmed physically.
But he still is an overwhelming physical presence and the point guard position might be the least contested spot on the team. It’s his position to have, and he already has the defense down to make sure he gets the minutes. An uptick in his jump shot and more chances to run the pick and roll, and you can expect a big production jump in his sophomore season.
Nojel Eastern odds to be Purdue’s second leading scorer: 7/5