Charlie Easley wasn’t supposed to be here.
At least, that was the opinion of most Division I colleges when it came time to evaluate the current Husker basketball freshman and Lincoln native. This time last year, Easley had one Division I offer as he finished his senior campaign as the leading scorer in Lincoln Pius X program history.
A further dig into Easley’s high school accolades make it seem impossible that more programs hadn’t taken a chance on him. Not only was he named to the Lincoln Journal Star’s Super-State first team last season, but he also was among the nation’s best uncommitted shooters in the class of 2019 according to Open Look Analytics.
The list used Easley’s 40.9% mark from 3-point range while on the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit. Other notable names on the list included potential 2020 NBA lottery picks in North Carolina’s Cole Anthony and Georgia’s Anthony Edwards. Duke’s Matthew Hurt rounded out that impressive trio as Easley stood with some of the top uncommitted 3-point shooters in the country at the time.
While uncommitted, those three had the high-profile Division I offers that Easley desperately craved.
“I don’t know if annoying is a good word, but I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting any offers,” Easley said. “I felt like I’d done enough over the summer with my stats and in the season to prove to coaches that I can play at the Division I level.”
In spite of all of the uncertainty that Easley faced regarding his future, he fell back on the one thing he could control. It’s the characteristic that’s made him such a fan favorite at Pinnacle Bank Arena throughout the course of his current freshman campaign.
He put in the work.
Easley’s work ethic is unparalleled, and something that’s been apparent to his coaches as his game develops. He didn’t have the recruiting stars, offers or media attention as a high school prospect, so he needed to constantly improve his craft while at Pius X in order to land the Division I opportunity he was after.
“I never had to worry about Charlie putting in the work to be able to make himself into a good player,” Pius X boys basketball head coach Brian Spicka said. “Sometimes it was the exact opposite, I’d ask him to go home or take a day off but he’d just go to another gym somewhere and work out some more.”
Pius X won a Class B State Championship last season to put the finishing touches on Easley’s impressive high school career. Later that month, Nebraska announced it had fired Tim Miles, and then replaced him with Fred Hoiberg. The roster went through a complete overhaul, giving Easley the perfect chance to stay home and make an impact at a Power Six program.
“In his mind he's proven already that he was a Division I caliber kind of guy, he just needed somebody to believe in him,” Spicka said. “The situation and roster turnover allowed for him to showcase his abilities and what he can bring to a team out on the floor.”
As a walk-on, getting to that point is the tricky part. It’s one thing to receive a walk-on opportunity and ride the bench for a couple of seasons, but it takes a different level of competitor to overcome their bench designation and become a valuable role player.
Most walk-ons are seen as token bench players in major college basketball programs. They’re guys that’ll get in seven or eight times during a season in garbage time, take some ill-advised 3-pointers and go back to the depths of the bench. They’re content with that lifestyle. And while Easley isn’t wired to accept a role like that, even he didn’t expect to find this much success this early in his career.
“I didn’t think I would play that much this year being a freshman walk-on,” Easley said. “I was just going to work hard, get better every day and do as much as I could to put myself in a position to be successful.”
That hard work and positioning started in Nebraska’s preseason trip to Italy. Without the services of highly touted sophomore guard Cam Mack while overseas, Husker fans looked for experienced players like senior guard Haanif Cheatham and junior guards Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Dachon Burke Jr. to impress in Italy.
However, Easley ended up being a bright spot, scoring a team-high 15 points in Nebraska’s final contest of the four-game Italy tour. While he was still months away from cracking Hoiberg’s rotation as an every-game player, Spicka believes that the international preseason tour gave Easley the confidence that he could compete at a high level.
“I think that the Italy trip they took was something that really sold the fact that [Charlie] could contribute to his teammates and the coaching staff,” Spicka said. “He shot the ball really well during the course of that four-game stretch.”
Then, as the Huskers returned from Italy and the season rapidly approached, it seemed that Easley was back to square one. He continued to work hard and prepare, but he only saw four minutes of game action over the season’s first eight games. That didn’t discourage him, and he still went through intense mental preparation on the bench, even when he knew he wasn’t playing.
“I was preparing like I was playing for a game even when I knew I wasn't playing,” Easley said. “So I didn't have to have that big of a shift in my mentality when it was finally my time.”
Much like his search for a place to play at the next level, all Easley needed was one opportunity to prove that he was more than a reserve. Many thought that would come in Nebraska’s Big Ten opener at Indiana on Dec. 13, after Hoiberg announced the suspension of junior guard Jervay Green for a violation of team rules.
Instead, the opportunity eventually came in Nebraska’s Dec. 15 home contest against Purdue. Easley saw 10 minutes of action against the Boilermakers, and in those 10 minutes he proved his value to this team.
Going strictly off the box score, it might seem like he was invisible against Purdue. He finished with two points and one rebound, which isn’t the breakout performance one would envision. To Easley, that doesn’t matter. He knows that his game is much more diverse than what the box score indicates.
“I'm going to do anything to win,” Easley said. “Whether it's scoring, defense, little things, rebounding just anything to win and outwork people.”
That attitude sparked Nebraska to a 70-56 upset victory over the Boilermakers, capped by Easley’s now-famous box-out of 7-foot-3 Purdue center Matt Haarms. The Huskers went 1-2 over the next three games with Easley playing a combined 13 minutes. He returned to the lineup for good after the Jan. 3 game with Rutgers and hasn’t looked back.
Easley played a major role in what is currently Nebraska’s most recent victory, a 76-70 win over Iowa. He saw 16 minutes of action and did nearly everything well. Easley got on the floor for loose balls, took charges and went 1-for-2 from the free-throw line. He finished with one point, one rebound, one assist and two steals.
“There’s a lot of things Charlie does that doesn’t always show up in the stat book,” Spicka said. “Looking at his per-game numbers doesn’t tell the story about what he does on the floor … the deflections he gets, the diving for loose balls and that winning mentality.”
After the Iowa game, Easley’s hard work was rewarded by Hoiberg and the coaching staff by being put on scholarship. His hard work had finally paid off, and it seemed Easley would continue to peak for the rest of the season.
“I should have had cameras going in there [when it was announced Easley was on scholarship],” Hoiberg said in a Jan. 10 press conference. “He’s just one of those guys who comes to work every day. He shows up an hour before practice, shooting in a dark gym before anybody else shows up. It’s just easy to root for a guy like that.”
However, Easley and Nebraska snapped back to reality after the Iowa game. It takes some serious time and a good amount of failure to adjust to the speed of the college game, and Easley began experiencing some of those hardships. Unfortunately for him, those hardships came to fruition when the Huskers needed him most.
Nebraska had the opportunity to pick up a season-defining victory at then-No. 24 Rutgers at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), a building in which the Scarlet Knights hadn’t lost all season. With 47 seconds left in the second half and the game tied at 72-72, the former walk-on found himself wide open in the corner and hoisted a 3-pointer that would’ve given the Huskers the lead.
He missed. That shot lingered in Easley’s mind, and the next day he was right back in the gym to ensure something like that would never happen again.
“Shots like that are the ones that are going to motivate me to try and get better,” Easley said. “The next day I was shooting that same shot [from the Rutgers game] for a good hour … it had to have been well over 200, maybe even 300 shots.”
That level of work is the standard for Easley, but missing shots has been the biggest struggle for him this season. At Pius X, Easley averaged 23.3 points per game, shot 51% from the field, 45% from 3-point range and 86% from the free-throw line. So far, those numbers haven’t quite translated to the college level, but Easley hasn’t lost any confidence in his offensive game.
“I’m still having trouble hitting shots, but I’m putting in the work in practice and I’m confident they’ll start falling,” Easley said. “I have to focus on the things I can control, which is my effort, defense, mentality and energy.”
Easley and the Huskers have faded to the Big Ten’s cellar quickly, and the days of his first big-time performances coinciding with Nebraska’s big-time upsets seem like a distant memory. However, Easley is gaining confidence game by game, and senior guard Matej Kavas’ season-ending hand injury means Easley will see extended minutes through the season’s final month.
As the 2019-20 season turns into a wash, many Husker fans are starting to build anticipation for Hoiberg’s second season, and there's a good reason to. In addition to most of the team’s core returning, Nebraska also will welcome junior forward Derrick Walker, junior guard Shamiel Stevenson and sophomore guard Dalano Banton back into the fold after redshirting this season.
Plus, Hoiberg has landed commitments from quality junior college products Teddy Allen and Lat Mayen. So where does Easley fit into this mix? Only time will tell, but there’s always a place on the floor for guys who work as hard as he does. As Easley’s offensive game progresses, his value to this program could skyrocket.
“I've learned to never bet against Charlie in just about anything,” Spicka said. “His level of determination is pretty special.”
Matching this year’s total of 9.4 minutes per game next year will be an uphill battle, but it’s a battle Easley’s clearly willing to fight. Given his effort this season, it could be foolish to place any limits on his expectations for his remaining time in Lincoln. Easley will just outwork them.
And if it seems impossible, remember this: his journey here was too.