Mike Ellis has coached Shaun Livingston.
And coached against Chasson Randle.
The Evanston High School boys’ basketball coach has a player on his current roster who reminds him of both former Illinois high school talents.
For both his play-making and scoring abilities.
But Nojel Eastern is still a year removed from getting his driver’s license and won’t play college basketball until 2017.
Yet Eastern is a name many college basketball fans will likely hear.
This season. Next season. And the two seasons after that.
The 6-foot-2 guard is only a freshman at Evanston, but Eastern has managed to make a meaningful impression more than halfway through his first high school season for the 14-5 Wildkits.
He is averaging 8.8 points, 2.3 assists and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 37 percent from three-point range
“So far, he’s coming along nicely,” said Ellis, now in his fourth season at Evanston after spending seven seasons as the Peoria Richwoods coach. “We knew with him participating in our summer program that he was going to be a player that would be capable of contributing at the varsity level. He had that goal set to play and contribute at the varsity level right away. All summer long, he’d be up there competing with juniors and seniors. They’ve done a great job of accepting him. There’s no jealousy involved at all that he’s come up and played signinifcant minutes. That’s another strength of his is how good of a teammate he is.”
College coaches are taking notice. Like Illinois. Along with a multitude of others.
“He’s getting interest form all the Big Ten schools,” Ellis said. “Illinois has been at a couple practices. So has Xavier and Creighton. We’ve been receiving calls from Indiana, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State, among others. Jon Scheyer reached out from Duke just to let him know who he is and he’s somebody they’re watching. His success at the AAU level and his performances this season have caught the attention of a lot of coaches.”
Ellis — who coached former Illinois forward Bill Cole at Richwoods — said by no means does Eastern have a timeline of when he wants to make a decision or anything like that.
That will play itself out in the next few years.
Eastern, who made the Pekin Holiday All-Tournament team last month and had 16 points in his varsity debut three days before Thanksgiving, was in attendance for the Illinois-Indiana game at State Farm Center on Dec. 31.
He also took in the Illinois-Washington football game at Soldier Field on Sept. 14.
Ellis said Eastern has gone to a few Northwestern and DePaul home games this winter as well.
“He’s just kind of wading in the shallow end right now and getting his feet wet with recruiting,” Ellis said. “He’s mainly just observing from afar. I’ve talked to him about this, and he understands that it’s a long ways away before coaches sit across from him at the table and offer him a scholarship. He realizes the work that’s going to have to take place in order to make that happen.”
The left-handed guard is looked at as more of a point guard now than a shooting guard, but Ellis is confident he can handle both roles if needed.
Much depends, too, on how he grows and how his body develops.
“His strength is his passing,” Ellis said. “He’s got great vision on the floor. He understands where to put the ball in his teammates’ hands. He can shoot the three well and get to the basket. He’s definitely going to be somebody who can impact the game.”
Ellis said Eastern has met expectations the freshman put on himself before the season.
And the Wildkits coach has immense expectations of what Eastern’s prep career could look like in, say, 2017.
“I could see him being a possible Mr. Basketball winner his senior year if he keeps progressing at the rate he is,” Ellis said. “There’s probably him and 4-6 other guys at this time in his class that are putting themselves in that position. I don’t think he’ll be 6-7 like Livingston was, but if he does, that’d be great. Nojel can run a team. He can score. Just like with Chasson Randle, each night he can bring to the table what his team needs in order for them to win. He definitely has that potential.”