Admit it: This is the one you’re been waiting for.
Technically Matt Frost (#21) is up next on the roster, but I can do the walk-ons in a group post because getting a Grady Eifert-like contribution from either of the two returning walk-ons seems unlikely.
There is definitely some homework for this guy, however.
Nojel Eastern – Senior in 2020-21
2017-18 Stats: 37 Games played, 0 starts. 12.6 mpg, 2.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.1 apg, 48.3% FG, 33.3% 3FG (Yes, he was 3 of 9!), 41.7 FT%
2018-19 Stats: 36 Games played, 35 starts. 28.2 mpg, 7.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 49.5% FG, 0% 3FG (0 for 4), 65% FT
2019-20 Stats: 31 Games played, 27 starts. 25.5 mpg, 4.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.7 apg, 42.0% FG, 0% 3FG (0 for 3), 48.5% FT
Let’s begin with the positives: Nojel is an elite defender. He has the ability to put another team’s top guy in a box and remove him from the equation offensively. Just look at what he did to Romeo Langford in West Lafayette last season. The Rutgers game a few weeks ago shows part of the quandry with him because he can’t play on two guys at once. Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker were both killing us, but Nojel could only play on one. When you have a guy like Nojel on defense he can cover up a lot of mistakes and I love that he takes pride in that.
That said… Nojel was a complete liability on offense for much of this season. Virtually all of his numbers regressed significantly. He was down 2.6 points per game, which is substantial when Purdue lost several close games. His rebounding was down when he can be a major asset on the glass, especially the offensive glass. Not only was his free throw percentage down, but his attempts were down.
Nojel’s issues at the line were twofold. First of all, you’re a guard with an unreliable jumpshot, so you’re going to get to the line by going to the basket. When given those chances, you have to hit them. 2018-19 Nojel did that, most famously in the Michigan State game when he got on a heater from the line as Izzo was trying to send him there on purpose because of his struggles. He went 8 of 10 from the line and shot with confidence. Overall, Nojel shot 100 free throws in 2018-19, hitting 65 of them. That’s totally fine for his game, too. In 2019-20 he shot only 48 free throws and his percentage dropped under 50%.
That shows his lack of aggressiveness in going to the basket. Nojel is a big 6’7” 225 pound bull that can get his way to the basket pretty much whenever he wants. How many times to did he pull up on the drive this year though? Six times this season Nojel failed to score a single point. In eight more games he scored 2 points or less. that’s 14 of 31 games, nearly half the season, where he was pretty much a complete non-factor scoring-wise. For a guy that averaged 7.5 points per game the previous season that is six more games than he should ever be held scoreless. In three of those he only attempted one shot. He was only in double figures four times, against Ohio, at Maryland, the home game against Illinois, and at Wisconsin.
Simply put, we cannot have him be a complete liability on offense again. Teams are playing five feet off of him because they know he won’t shoot (his 12-15 footer is solid though), and this takes away the drive. That means for most of the time he was on the court Purdue was playing 4 on 5 offensively. That makes the job of defending us that much easier for opponents.
To be blunt, coach Painter needs to go to Nojel and tell him he is a power forward. He needs to go down low, rebound, post up, and use his strength to score inside. His passing (an offensive positive) can also be used to move the offense as well. Nojel is not a point guard. When you’re not even a threat to shoot and your turnovers have increased each year (1.1 to 1.4 to 1.5) it is time to give up the point guard experiment. His assist to turnover ratio was only 0.7. With Isaiah Thompson, Eric Hunter Jr. and the incoming Ethan Morton we will be fine at point guard if Nojel moves to forward full-time.
I have no illusions of Nojel developing a game more suited to the wing. If it was going to happen it would have happened by now. He hasn’t hit a three at all since the Maryland game on January 31, 2018 when he was a freshman. He has only even attempted 7 since then. In the modern game of basketball you simply cannot have a guard that is no threat to even shoot from long range.
I love Nojel as a defender. He is a player that can be the best defender in the Big Ten and one of the best in the entire country. If he plays professionally, that will be his calling card. I want him to be successful because he is athletic, strong, and a player with the tools to succeed if he is in the right place. He cannot be timid on offense again. Period. We desperately need aggressive, attack the basket Nojel and rebounder Nojel. Otherwise, the entire offense bogs down with 4 on 5 basketball that teams can easily defend.