WESTFIELD, Ind. — Hanging high above the floor on Court 5 at Jonathan Byrd’s Fieldhouse are three banners of former Ohio State All-American guard D’Angelo Russell. And on Saturday morning, a Buckeyes target in the 2017 class — a left-handed combo guard like Russell, nonetheless — played on this very court.
Russell isn't alone in having his banners here. Draymond Green, Devin Booker and others have their own court, too. Nike sponsored athletes who played in the Elite Youth Basketball League during their AAU days are plastered all over the walls at these type of events. But when Nojel Eastern was asked about playing on Russell’s court following his first game of the day, the 6-foot-7 Evanston, Illinois native cracked a faint smile.
“He’s looking down on me,” he joked.
Before that, though, Eastern brought up Russell without being asked about the former Ohio State star. Instead, he discussed Russell when presented with a question about why the Buckeyes are an attractive school for a player with his skillset.
“The way they’ve had point guards come through that school before — D’Angelo Russell, Mike Conley — it shows that they let their guards play,” Eastern said of Ohio State. “A lot of things go through the guards and myself, I’m a guard. I like to get my teammates involved. I’m not a selfish player, I like to feed.
“I can play off the ball and play multiple positions and they talked about that as well, being versatile.”
That last part is big in Thad Matta’s system. Russell was a 6-foot-5 combo guard who played point and off the ball. JaQuan Lyle, the current Ohio State point guard, can play both positions as well. Before those two, there was Evan Turner.
Listed at 6-7, Eastern is a similar talent.
Rated as a four-star prospect and the No. 67 overall player in the 2017 class, Eastern earned his offer from Matta and the Buckeyes last week. Ohio State is certainly in the mix, along with “about 15 other schools,” according to Eastern. Michigan State is the unanimous favorite, according to the 247Sports crystal ball, but Eastern said he’s not in any rush to make a decision and that he plans to narrow his list down to “five or six schools” sometime by the end of the summer.
“It’s been a great process,” he said. “[Ohio State] has been keeping strongly in contact for about — it’s been awhile. They had a couple transfers so it’s given me the opportunity to come in, and they offered a couple days ago, and I’ve just been trying to work to continue to get that and I’m blessed that they did it.
“It was a great day for me.”
Being from Evanston, there's an obvious hometown draw to Northwestern. Eastern said he has to do whatever he can to not let that impact his decision.
“I can’t let the hometown really affect me. Of course it’d be great to play for your hometown and have everybody come out and support you, but I have to find the best opportunity for me,” he said. “I’m not counting Northwestern out at all. Northwestern has been recruiting me hard as well and I’m just going to continue to progress.”
The Buckeyes are already heavily involved with another 2017 point guard Markell Johnson and just recently offered Nick Weatherspoon out of Camden, Mississippi in addition to Eastern. Matta clearly wants to add another guard in the 2017 class knowing there’s a possibility Lyle turns pro following next season. Ohio State likely doesn’t take more than one of these three — if it gets any — but it’s certainly of note two offers to point guards have been recently extended.
And while Eastern's recruitment appears to be, at this time, somewhat wide open, he does have another connection to the Buckeyes that is somewhat surprising. Eastern said he is good friends with Ohio State walk-on guard Joey Lane.
“I know Joey. He went to Deerfield and we played them. He’s a really good friend of mine,” he said. “He keeps in contact with me. We really don’t talk about Ohio State as much but we’re just friends and of course it would be great to have a friend on campus that I know on the team.”
In recruiting, every little bit may help.