By Tim Penman
Until the age of eight, Nojel Eastern’s mom would school him in one-on-one basketball games on the lakefront court at Loyola Park.
“I beat him quite a few times, I made him cry a few times,” Tamala Reed said. “When he figured it out that he was faster than his mom, that he could shoot it, that’s when I couldn’t beat him anymore.”
The Evanston sophomore guard is now 6-foot-5, 10 inches taller than his mom and is considered by experts to be arguably the best sophomore basketball player in Illinois, the most highly recruited from Evanston in 31 years.
By age 10, Eastern’s size and high basketball IQ distinguished him among other kids, according to his longtime trainer, Octavius Parker. Nojel’s father, Lejon Eastern, would also challenge his son on the court during that time of development.
Nojel grew up in a basketball family. Lejon played high school basketball at Park Forest Academy. His mom made the all-conference team during her playing days at Austin Community Academy High School before going on to be a small forward at Chicago State University during the mid-1980s. She is a school bus driver who referees both men’s and women’s high school and college basketball. Up until seven years ago, at age 40, she still played in rec leagues herself.
Now, however, she said she devotes herself to her only child, travelling with him to tournaments and camps – “I go where he goes,” she said – and her support for her son has apparently paid off. Last Wednesday, Eastern was named to the Central Suburban South all-conference team alongside senior teammate Elijah Henry.
“His size is the first thing that stands out,” said Scott Burgess, Prep Hoops Illinois scout and recruiting analyst. “He understands the game well beyond his years. He is a good ball handler; he is smooth with it in traffic. He can finish with both hands, which is kind of rare for prospects at a young age.”
Reed said Eastern has gotten offers from five programs: UNLV, Purdue, Illinois, Seton Hall and Bradley. Those offers are in place until it comes time for Eastern to make his decision during senior year, according to Reed.
The other colleges that have reached out and shown initial interest, Reed said, include: LSU, Marquette, Baylor, Ohio State, Missouri, Georgetown, Wisconsin, Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State.
“I think his recruiting is going to blow up in the offseason,” said Loyola Academy coach Thomas Livatino. “Depending on what they do in the state tournament, I think that he’s going to be a kid that is fielding 35 plus Division I offers when it’s all said and done.”
During her playing days Reed said she was a “tough and rugged” player with a “good shooting touch.” That shooting ability is something that Eastern has definitely inherited with a soft touch and a smooth release.
His off-the-dribble game is well-developed and he is comfortable shooting the ball from mid-range as well.
“He has a high release, a good arch with a lot of rotation,” said New Trier sophomore coach Andrew Horne.
During the regular season, Eastern made 42 three-pointers in 114 attempts (36.8%), which led all Evanston starters. He also led the team with 14.8 points per game and had 53 assists in 24 games played. He was Evanston’s top scorer in 13 out of those 24 games and also the leading rebounder in seven games.
Evanston varsity coach Mike Ellis said Eastern has the unselfish attitude of a true point guard. He has a pass-first mentality.
“I’m a facilitator,” Eastern said. “I try to do anything to get my teammates open shots instead of myself.”
In late December, Evanston (18-8, 9-1 Central Suburban South) cracked the Chicago Tribune’s list of top 20 high school teams in the state. It remained a fixture on that list for a month, until a blowout loss to St. Charles East on Feb. 17. One of the main reasons for the Wildkits’ success is the leadership and unselfish play of Eastern.
“That is both expected and unexpected,” said Ellis. “It’s unexpected because he is only a sophomore. To be able to have the qualities he has as a leader and understanding what it takes as a sophomore, just speaks volumes towards his potential in the future.”
The last player from Evanston to garner so much attention from Division I schools was Everette Stephens in 1984, according to Evanston athletic director Chris Livatino. Stephens went on to play at Purdue and got selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 31st overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft.
“The number of offers is definitely going to grow the more people see that he is a winning player, a very versatile player,” Ellis said. “He can play a few positions: the point guard, forward, the shooting guard. If he grows another two inches, he can play the point wing.”
With offers coming in, Eastern said he’s not feeling any added pressure.
“I’m just going to continue to work hard,” Eastern said. “It’s a great feeling, but I stay humble, I don’t worry about those things.”
Reed said she tells Eastern to keep his mind focused on the present and to not get caught up in any potential hype that comes from having scouts in the stands.
“He needs to concentrate on two things: his academics and his game, not the other stuff,” Reed said.
Eastern told his mom that in addition to basketball, he would like to pursue sports broadcasting in college.
“[Broadcasting] is a conversation that I always bring up to him because anything can happen,” Reed said. “He wants to stay in sports, he likes talking about sports. He’s sports crazy like his mother.”
Andre Patrick, vice president of the Evanston pride basketball feeder program, said the support base Eastern’s mother provides for him has been a big factor in his progression.
“Both him and his mother have gone all over the country to showcase his talents, and it’s paying off,” Patrick said.
During summer months, Reed travels with Eastern to various summer workouts, including Colorado Springs, Colorado last year for the USA Basketball Junior National Team mini-camp. Now, Reed is hopeful Eastern is going to make the USA U16 team, and will find out shortly after this season concludes.
Ellis compares Eastern to Shaun Livingston of the Golden State Warriors, whom Ellis coached when he was an assistant at Richwoods High School in Peoria. Ellis had Livingston when he was a freshman and sophomore (before he transferred to Peoria Central High School), and said both players are similar in their IQ for the game, passing abilities and leadership qualities.
“Nojel’s years of knowledge and experience with the game are well beyond that of a normal tenth-grader,” Ellis said.
Ellis said his star sophomore just needs to learn to be a little less unselfish with the ball. As the 32-point performance against Riverside Brookfield showed, the team succeeds when Eastern is more assertive with his shooting.
He seems to have gotten the message loud and clear.
“I understand what I can do,” Eastern said. “I have to be able to put my team on my back, be a leader on this team, and try to get the win any way possible. I have to do that for the postseason so we can go as far as possible.”
There’s no one more excited for what comes next than Eastern’s mom.
“I love basketball,” Reed said. “I’m just a fan just like everybody else, even though I’m his mother. I love to watch him play.”