Analysis: What Nojel Eastern's Commitment Means For Michigan Basketball
The Michigan basketball roster grew by one May 14 with the commitment of former Purdue guard - and May 12 transfer - Nojel Eastern.
The 6-7, 225-pound Eastern started 62 games the past two years for Purdue, and appeared in 104 overall during his three-year career, and was a likely starter for the Boilermakers in 2020-21.
He averaged 4.9 points per game as a junior, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per contest, but saw his effective field goal percentage drop to 42.0%, down from 49.5% in his sophomore campaign.
What does Eastern's commitment mean for Michigan in 2020-21?
That depends entirely on whether the NCAA grants first-time transfers immediate eligibility. If it does (there is a vote May 20), then Eastern can compete for playing time at the '3' (where he saw 59.0% of Purdue's minutes in the Boilermakers' final five games of 2019-20), providing critical depth and competition for sophomore Franz Wagner.
Essentially, if he is able to play next season, Eastern would represent a significant upgrade in terms of defense, experience and leadership at the '3' than Cole Bajema was expected to offer had he stayed in Ann Arbor his sophomore season. Bajema transferred last week.
Though he is not a stretch '3', taking just 16 career three-pointers, Eastern has demonstrated an ability to get to the basket. He also would provide valuable practice minutes opposite Wagner, who is expected to start for the Wolverines in his second season, while incoming freshman Jace Howard and Terrance Williams develop their games and on-court habits.
What if Eastern is not granted immediate eligibility?
Then he would be required to sit out the 2020-21 season and Michigan would be very much in the same position it finds itself today - lacking depth at the '2' and the '3' where currently just three returning veterans are competing (senior Eli Brooks, junior Adrien Nunez and Wagner).
That would put the onus back on Howard and Williams to give Wagner rest or bail the Maize and Blue out if Wagner is ever in foul trouble or were to miss games. Not that Eastern is likely to get minutes at the '2' but head coach Juwan Howard could employ a lineup with Eastern (at the '3') and Wagner (at the '2') on the floor together, for a bigger presence and to spell Brooks.
Again, though, such conversation is moot if Eastern does receive clearance from the NCAA. If he must sit, then he will be one of three players at the '3' - along with Howard and Williams - and one of seven scholarship players expected back at Michigan for the 2021-22 season.
Eastern would represent one-third of a senior class that would also include Nunez and Brandon Johns Jr., and would likely be counted on to lead what should be a five- or six-man freshman class.
Will Eastern make a big impact on Michigan?
That depends entirely on what version shows up. Eastern's sophomore season was promising, with folks in West Lafayette greatly anticipating the gains he could make as a junior, but across the board, in every statistical category and advanced metric, Eastern took a step back in 2019-20, and Purdue head coach Matt Painter recently questioned Eastern's development.
Citing a number of Boilermakers that had made big jumps from one season to the next, Painter told Dan Dakich, "He made a really good jump from his freshman to sophomore year, then he took a step back this year. I don’t know what to say there because now you’ve become the outlier.”
Is that quote indicative of an attitude problem? Or is Painter simply looking to point the finger for his own inability as a coach to develop a talented athlete ranked the No. 69 player in the 2017 class?
A motivated Eastern, whether he plays this upcoming season or next, could be a valuable weapon for the Maize and Blue. Howard has already proven himself a players' coach that sparked career years for Brooks, rising senior Austin Davis, Johns, Wagner and departed senior Zavier Simpson. However, U-M fans also witnessed performance dips from departed senior Jon Teske and former Wolverine David DeJulius.
Will Eastern join the former group of Wolverines to play their best under Howard or will he spend one season in Ann Arbor on the continued downward trajectory? It's the question to be answered.