Spike Albrecht: Michigan lands 'versatile ... tough kid' in ex-Boilermaker Nojel Eastern
Spike Albrecht knows what it’s like to play at Michigan and Purdue.
The former Wolverine finished his career in West Lafayette and played his final season in 2016-17 with the Boilermakers.
He also knows a thing or two about what Michigan fans can expect from Nojel Eastern, the Purdue transfer who announced he was joining the Wolverines last week.
"He's so versatile, especially on the defensive end, one through four,” Albrecht said on WTKA’s “The Michigan Insider” on Monday. “He's a physical specimen. He's a tough kid. He really competes and plays hard. I think a lot of people when they talk about Nojel, the first thing they talk about is his jump shot, he's got to fix his jump shot.
“In my opinion, if he can work on that and improve that, obviously that's great, but he can still be so effective and so impactful on the floor even without really being able to step out and make shots. He can handle the ball, he can create, he can get into the paint and finishes with both hands. He's tough, he's athletic in transition and then on the defensive end he'll guard your best player.”
At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Eastern is listed as a guard but he can be deployed all over the floor. While he’s a limited shooter, he can play off the ball or serve as a ball-handler to initiate the half-court offense. He’s also a versatile weapon who can effectively guard multiple positions, as evidenced by his two-time selection to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team.
Simply put, he played a key role in helping Purdue win during his three years in West Lafayette. He appeared in 37 games as a freshman, started 62 games over the last two seasons and helped the Boilermakers make deep postseason runs as a freshman and sophomore.
While intraconference transfers happen — something Albrecht can attest to — Eastern’s departure from Purdue came out of the blue and his subsequent commitment to Michigan two days later was unexpected, even during an offseason that’s been full of twists and turns for the Wolverines.
During a radio interview on “The Dan Dakich Show” last week, Purdue coach Matt Painter sounded off on the recent transfers of big man Matt Haarms and Eastern. Both have pro aspirations and Eastern entered his name in the NBA Draft for the second time in three years last month.
Painter questioned the two players' work ethic when compared to former Boilermakers and NBA Draft picks Carsen Edwards and Caleb Swanigan and their understanding of what it takes to reach the next level.
“These guys are like, ‘Hey, I want to be a pro.’ Well, why don't we be all-conference in college first? Why don't we try that out?” Painter said. “So, you get guys that will average four points or six points or nine points or 10 points and say, 'Coach I want you to develop me into a pro.' Well, why don't you work like a pro?
“They want something out there and it's not magical. What they want lies in their work and what they want lies in their own production. Sometimes it's effort and results.”
Painter called Eastern a “good guy” but also had pointed remarks about his dip in production from his sophomore to junior year.
"Look at our guards. We've taken some guards, and not all of them were highly decorated guys coming out of high school, that were pretty productive players for us — Dakota Mathias, Ryan Cline, P.J. Thompson, Carsen Edwards,” Painter said. “When you look at the people that have been here when Nojel has been here and then you take a step back — Eric Hunter and Sasha Stefanovic I thought made really good jumps from their freshman to sophomore years this year. If you look at them, you see all those guys improved and you didn't improve.
“Nojel made a really good jump from his freshman to his sophomore year, but he took a step back this year. When you do that and you have lack of production…I don't know what to say because now you've become the outlier. The other guys got better. The other guys improved, but the other guys also stayed and fought through adversity. Now you walk out the door after you put your name in the draft twice when you averaged four points. To me, and I love him, but he's got to check his hole card because at the end of the day the rest of those guys were productive."
When asked about Painter’s candid comments, Albrecht didn’t think Painter was trying to bash Eastern and Haarms. Rather, Albrecht said Painter was "keeping it real" and trying to set the story straight that competition led to the two leaving the program.
Last season, the expectation for Eastern was to take on a larger offensive role with Edwards and Cline no longer around. But that didn’t happen as Eastern’s offensive output and shooting numbers regressed, going from 7.5 points and 49.5% shooting as a sophomore to 4.9 points and 42% shooting as a junior.
According to Albrecht, Edwards and Cline took a ton of pressure off Eastern and he struggled to adapt with them gone.
“I think Nojel with his game, he does a really good job of playing off other guys. He slashes to the rim, he was getting offensive rebounds, finishing,” Albrecht said. “Then this year they had a completely new group. They were really out of sync for most of the season offensively and I think it kind of snowballed with the team. Then individually guys started to lose confidence in themselves when they're not making shots and your team is losing.
“There's no doubt Nojel is a talented player. He's capable of putting up numbers, but it's just one of those seasons statistically didn't have his greatest season. Going to Michigan, you surround him with the right players, he can go out there and be a big-time impactful player for them.”
Barring a waiver or NCAA rule change, Eastern will have to sit out next season before he can use his final year of eligibility in 2021-22 (Michigan has yet to officially announce his addition to the roster).
While the hope is a change of scenery will help Eastern find his offense, Albrecht noted the sit-out year will be crucial for Eastern and the coaching staff to figure out how they want to utilize him.
Albrecht cited the job Michigan did with ex-Wolverine Duncan Robinson during his redshirt year in 2014-15 after he transferred from Williams College. Albrecht said every day Robinson in the gym with the coaches working on game shots and scenarios that were going to directly correlate to what he’d be doing on the floor.
“(Eastern) is going to be a grown man that last year,” Albrecht said. “He can have a really, really good last season, but he's just got to make sure he's got the right mindset and he's putting in the time in that redshirt season because the biggest thing is you don't want to come back the same player a year from now. That's on him and the coaches to really put in that time.”