After an impressive sophomore season, which earned him All-Big 10 honours, star forward E.J. Liddell has decided to dip a toe in the NBA draft waters. Mercifully, for Buckeyes fans, Liddell was quick to make clear he will maintain his college eligibility, leaving open the possibility he returns for a third year in Columbus.
On the face of it it looks like the former two-time Illinois ‘Mr Basketball’ is simply looking to go through the motions of the draft process before finally turning pro in 2022. Liddell will gain valuable experience going through all the necessary steps – working out for teams and receiving useful feedback from executives and coaches, etc – but can then resume his collegiate career and improve his draft stock next year.
Provided Liddell does return for his junior year, declaring for the draft, and putting himself through the rigmarole of a typical NBA draft process, represents an astute decision by the 20-year-old out of Belleville West High School. But if he listens to the wrong advice from those close to him, and decides to go the full distance in 2021, things could go awry. Former Buckeye Kaleb Wesson, who left Columbus after his junior year to pursue an NBA career, is a recent cautionary tale in betting on yourself too early. Unfortunately for Wesson, his idea of himself as a ballplayer differed from that of the key decision-makers in the NBA. He, like Liddell, clearly needed further seasoning at the NCAA level, after an underwhelming 2019-20 campaign which hardly had NBA front offices salivating. He paid the price for the high-stakes game he played and went undrafted. He now languishes in the G League with the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Liddell was a big recruiting coup for Holtmann; stealing a prized talent, and two-time Mr Basketball, from the Fighting Illini, was a masterstroke. E.J. made great strides in his second season at Ohio State, earning first-team All-Big 10 honors as he led the program in points (16.2) and rebounds (6.7) per game. His much-improved three-point shooting was another string added to his bow as he found the net from downton at a 34% clip (up from a putrid 19% during his freshman season). However, his second season was slightly marred by stretches of inconsistency, and a propensity to turn the ball over in crucial moments late in games. He had a horrendous time shooting the ball throughout the Big 10 conference tournament; hitting just 32% of his shots from the field in four games. When the NCAA tourney rolled around, in an otherwise impressive performance, he coughed the ball up a season-high five times against Oral Roberts during Ohio State’s embarrassing first-round exit One of those came at a crucial moment late in regulation with the Bucks up by four, with possession, and a little over a minute left on the clock.
But a lot of the negative can be put down to the increased workload, and the role Liddell was asked to play in a team that lacked a true big man. The Buckeyes’ tallest player last season was only 6’8 (Kyle Young), and at just 6’7, because of his build and strength, Liddell was often tasked with battling opposing teams’ centers in the paint. In the rough and tumble of the B1G conference, which is replete with seven-footers like Zach Edey, Hunter Dickinson and Luka Garza, that physical challenge clearly took its toll on Liddell, as the season wore on. He wouldn’t be asked to do that in the NBA, but his late-season regression, and inconsistency, testifies to his unreadiness for the pro game, at this juncture.
That is why I expect Liddell to return for his junior season and lead the Buckeyes to what will likely be another stellar regular season, but with a much happier ending. If he goes pro, he leaves a huge hole to fill in Buckeyes’ frontcourt. But if he returns, he immediately becomes a frontrunner the B1G player of the year. Furthermore, if Coach Holtmann can recruit Efton Reid, or get a legitimate center via the transfer portal, then Liddell could be set for a spectacular college season as he will be free from the wearisome battles in the post. Such a season would see Liddell emerge as a middle-to-high first-round pick, easily. This is why postponing his NBA journey until 2022 makes sense.
For his part, when asked about the expectations for the Buckeyes in 2022, Liddell gave an answer that hinted at a return for his third year at Columbus: “If everybody puts in the work they did in the offseason, it’s going to be pretty hard to beat us,” Liddell said. I’m sure the manner in which this season ended will have left a bitter taste, and, having missed out on March Madness last year, one can hope that the desire for one final dance will help sway him to a decision that leaves Buckeye nation very happy.
The deadline to withdraw from NBA Draft is July 19, ten days before the draft is due to take place, so there will be a long, and nervous, wait for Buckeyes fans and coaches, to find out where Liddell’s future lays.