Sleeper Deep Dives: E.J. Liddell
The Ohio State junior was a potential second-round draft pick last year before he decided to return to college; his improvements this season could lead to him sneaking into the first round in 2022.
E.J. Liddell has been on the radar for NBA teams and draft nerds alike for some time now. After finishing his high school career as the #41 recruit in his class, Liddell contributed to the Ohio State Buckeyes as a key bench contributor in his first year. Still, he was far away from being a one-and-done prospect.
Liddell began to boost his draft stock pretty significantly during his sophomore season, starting in all 29 games that he played after not starting once the previous year. He started to pick up steam as a potentially draftable player due to his versatile offensive game and solid size, and he ended the season with a Big Ten First Team nod. In spite of his rising draft stock, Liddell ultimately returned to Ohio State for his junior year.
That decision to return to school appears to be paying dividends for Liddell. While his play as a sophomore was strong enough for him to get drafted, he has really started to turn heads this season. Once a fringe second-round prospect, Liddell could end up being picked in the latter half of the first round if he keeps up his stellar play so far this season. He is averaging 19.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, and 2.7 assists per game, and he is in the running for another Big Ten First Team berth.
E.J. Liddell has developed this season from a fringe NBA bench big man to someone who could conceivably work his way into a starting power forward job at the next level. He might not reach that high of a ceiling, but his growth as a long-range threat is an excellent complement to his hard-charging play at both ends of the floor. He might have flown under the radar for a while, but his draft stock is certainly heating up. So…let’s dive deep!
Offense: Shooting Growth and Versatility
When E.J. Liddell arrived at Ohio State, he was not a shooting threat. His numbers from long range in his first season bear that out—Liddell went 5-of-26 from three-point range that season for a putrid 19.2% shooting mark on less than one attempt per game.
Liddell showed marked improvement on that front as a sophomore, boosting his outside shooting percentage to 33.8% on just under three 3PA per game. His growth as a shooter was encouraging, but it was not enough for him to rise to the level of being a serious shooting threat.
This season, Liddell has taken yet another leap as a three-point shooter in a way that significantly changes his long-term projection. Liddell is up to 3.6 3PA per game, and that jump in frequency has not hurt his accuracy—so far, he has knocked down those triples at a 39.7% clip. His size and strength enable him to set punishing screens, and he can take advantage of the space generated by those screens when his teammates get him the ball:
Liddell played his best game of the season against another versatile and draft-worthy big man in Pete Nance, which is encouraging in terms of Liddell’s ability to show out against NBA-level competition. Still, it wasn’t just that one game—Liddell’s increased confidence in his shot is clear by how much more willing he is to let it fly on pick-and-pop plays, even on the first play of the game:
Outside of his improved shooting, the rest of Liddell’s offensive game was already pretty well-rounded: his handle is solid for his size, his post repertoire is pretty impressive, and he runs the floor well in transition. Liddell ranks in the 83rd percentile overall on offense per Synergy Sports, and he ranks in the 75th percentile or higher in all play types except for in isolation and on cuts.
Liddell’s passing is also quite solid—he is someone who can be relied upon to make the right play more often than not, and his decent handle makes it easier to feel comfortable when he has the ball in his hands. Every once in a while, though, Liddell makes a standout pass and shows that he still has more room to grow as a playmaker:
E.J. Liddell has always had a strong interior game, and his post fadeaway is a solid complement to his bully-ball game near the rim. His potential as a passer out of the post will make it even easier for NBA teams to slot him in as a power forward or even a small-ball center at times. Liddell has an intriguing offensive skill set even without a dangerous long-range game, and his newly improved three-point shot only serves to further open up those opportunities for the rest of his game to shine.
Defense: Shot Blocking and Strength
The improvement in his three-point shooting is the most important indicator in terms of E.J. Liddell’s future success in the NBA. However, long-range shooting is not the only area in which he has shown dramatic growth this season.
After averaging just under a block per game as a freshman and just over a block per game as a sophomore, Liddell is on track to blow past his block totals from those two years combined during his junior season. He has turned back 45 shots in his 16 games this season, sending back shots from the weak side and cleaning up mistakes around the rim. Opposing players who underrate Liddell’s athletic ability are often made to pay for their mistakes:
While Liddell has solid athletic tools, his defensive fit is not as clear as his offensive fit at the NBA level. He isn’t quick enough to be tasked with handling guards on the perimeter, or even speedier forwards. He already has the bulk to handle most NBA big men, but he’s a bit undersized at 6’7” despite his 240 lb. frame.
Liddell’s best position defensively would probably be at power forward, and his improved rim protection shows that he might be ready to play as a small-ball center sooner rather than later. Still, he is likely going to spend most of his playing time at power forward defensively given his size and skill set. Although his improved defense at the rim will earn him playing time, his limited flexibility as a switch defender will hold him back barring dramatic improvement.
The defensive fit might be more difficult to figure out than the offensive fit, but this year has been very encouraging in terms of Liddell’s defensive future. His improved presence as a shot-blocker will allow him to fit with a wider variety of other big men, and his stunning development in that area bodes well for him improving the rest of his defensive game going forward. Liddell’s leap as a shooter has earned most of the headlines, but his improvement defensively around the basket also indicates a huge step forward that will be a big positive in terms of his future projections.
E.J. Liddell has seen his draft stock heat up already this season, but he could see his stock rise even further over the next few months. Beyond the jack-of-all-trades toolkit and his impressive box score numbers, Liddell checks off pretty much every intangible that you could ask for a player to fulfill. He plays incredibly passionately, and his joy shines through frequently on the court. He proved that he can elevate his play in key moments with his play in last year’s Big Ten tournament (where he earned another First Team berth), and a solid postseason run for Ohio State could vault Liddell’s stock even higher.
The conference and NCAA tournaments are rapidly approaching, but they are still a few weeks away. In the meantime, Liddell will have plenty of chances to prove himself against high-level competition between now and then. A few hot shooting nights from deep could boost him above 20 points per game and 40% from deep for the season, and those nice round numbers and highlight-reel performances could take Liddell’s stock from fringe first-round prospect to somewhere closer to the middle of the first round.
Even if his stock does not climb any higher, however, Liddell has solidified himself as a prospect to watch this season. His burgeoning shooting touch and his blossoming shot-blocking skill are just cherries on top of Liddell’s already well-rounded game. His stock might cool off a bit in the weeks to come, but E.J. Liddell has shown major growth in really key areas this season. NBA teams would be wise to take note of that growth, and they should consider making a first-round bet on a well-rounded player who only continues to improve.