Michigan coach Juwan Howard doesn’t yet know if Chaundee Brown or Nojel Eastern will be eligible to play next season.
Howard doesn’t know if there will even be a 2020-21 college basketball season given the uncertain state of sports during the coronavirus pandemic.
But what Howard does know is what he’s getting in the two transfers the Wolverines landed commitments from earlier this month — even though the program has yet to officially announce their additions.
Eastern spent the past three seasons at Purdue, where he made 62 starts and averaged 5.1 points and four rebounds over 104 games. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, he’s listed as a guard but can be used all over the floor on both ends — something Howard saw for himself twice last season.
“Having to game plan for a guy like Nojel, I was always scratching my head,” Howard said in an interview posted on one of the Big Ten Network’s Twitter accounts. “He’s a matchup problem for any opponent with his strength, his athleticism, his skill set, his IQ on the floor. He’s another guy that played the game the right way, with a blue-collar type approach when he goes out and competes.”
Eastern is primarily known for his defense and disruptive abilities. A two-time selection to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team, he’s a versatile weapon who can blanket any guard, wing or forward and make life miserable for an opponent’s top scorer. He led the Boilermakers with 33 steals last season.
On the other end, Eastern is far from a pure scorer and isn’t much of a shooting threat away from the basket. He averaged 4.9 points and shot a career-low 42% from the field in 31 games last season. He’s also a 55.8% career free-throw shooter and is 3-for-16 from 3-point range, with all three of those makes coming his freshman year.
“He has a lot to prove as a player, like they all do, but he wants to get better,” Howard said. “He’s really big on, 'Hey coach,' and this is from his own mouth, ‘I want to improve. There are lots of areas of my game that I feel that I can work on, and I’m willing to put in the work.’ One thing about me, I love guys that are honest with themselves.”
Eastern was a top-70 recruit coming out of Evanston, Illinois, when he committed to Purdue. As someone who also grew up in the Chicago area, Howard can attest to how that molds and shapes a player.
“He’s a guy that's a competitor and a guy that's a worker, so with that type of DNA I think that's special,” Howard said. “It gets back to a kid who's coming from the inner city of Chicago, playing there in the Chicago area and it's tough competition. This game of basketball, especially in the Chicago area…that's for competitors only. That's what Nojel Eastern is all about.”
Unlike Eastern, Howard didn’t cross paths on the court with Brown and didn’t get to see him play in person last season at Wake Forest, where he had a career year his junior season.
Instead, Howard’s interactions with the 6-5, 220-pound guard have been limited to phone calls and Zoom sessions.
“He’s a great kid. He understands what he wants in life,” Howard said. “He’s also a great student in the classroom, which we appreciate.”
Brown, a three-year starter, averaged 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds in 23 games last season with the Demon Deacons. He also shot a career-best 45.6% from the field and made 50.6% of his 2-point field-goal attempts.
Howard noted he also received rave reviews about Brown from former Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, who was fired this offseason and was NBA teammates with Howard in Dallas.
“Chaundee has the habits of what it takes to be a winner,” Howard said. “If all goes well, whenever the NCAA decides and allows him to play whether it’s this year or next year, we’re going to be happy to have him be a part of our team because he provides something that’s special. He’s a competitor and he’s a guy that really wants to win, do whatever it takes to win. One thing that must be said is he's a total team guy.
“That’s something that speaks a lot about his character and that's what I really admired about Chaundee, just hearing it from Danny. I'm looking forward to it; the staff is looking forward to working with him. His teammates, I'm sure they're going to welcome him and vice versa.”
When that will happen in person, though, is still anybody’s guess.
Last week, the NCAA cleared the way for basketball players to begin voluntary activities on June 1, and the Big Ten will reportedly leave it up to individual institutions to issue a date when student-athletes can return to campus while adhering to campus and state regulations.
But there could be a longer wait in Michigan as the stay-at-home order was extended last week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to June 12.
“It's tough to really understand and navigate how we can plan for what we're being told as far as the possibly of having a season,” Howard said. “First we have to see if there is going to be a season. Once we hear as far as what are the guidelines and making sure that we do it the right way where we all are keeping our health, making sure that's No. 1.
“At the end of the day, kids want to play basketball, but I've explained to my team is that this is bigger than basketball. Let's allow the doctors who are experts in this field, let's listen to what we are being told and what they're advising us to do and then we'll try to figure out the new normal from there.”