Maybe E.J. Liddell decides to go through the NBA draft process. Maybe he doesn’t. As long as he avoids signing with an agent, he can take those steps, get feedback from professional scouts and executives, pull his name out of consideration and remain at Ohio State. It would seem to be a net-positive situation for guys like him and Duane Washington Jr. who don’t seem quite ready to move to the NBA but might benefit from hearing what people in the league think they need to work on.
But regardless of whether Liddell eventually takes that step or not, he wasn’t ready to make a decision when asked about it on Wednesday.
“I'm just focused on getting back to our regular life,” Liddell said. “Being a little bit more social. Getting back to my video games.”
Spoken like a true college student.
Liddell, of course, is anything but that. The 6-foot-7 forward just wrapped up his sophomore season with the Buckeyes, increasing his averages in points per game (6.7 to 16.2), rebounds per game (3.8 to 6.7) and assists per game (0.5 to 1.8) while going from having basically no 3-point shot to a quality jumper from behind the arc. His season earned him first-team All-Big Ten honors from the conference’s coaches.
“This season was a roller-coaster, honestly,” Liddell said. “I worked all summer just to go out there and prove myself, and I felt like I did that in the aspects of elevating my game. I proved doubters wrong. I just went out there and played my hardest, gave my all this whole season. It kind of hurts that it had to come to an end so soon.”
Let your imagination run a little bit and it’s not too difficult to think Liddell could find himself in consideration for an All-American selection next season if his trajectory continues to point upward. Washington might end up in a similar spot depending on how his summer goes, too, and where he can make improvements.
Beyond just those two, the entire team – which saw its 2020-21 season ended far earlier than expected – will look to take advantage of the next seven months.
What will fuel them this offseason, Liddell said, is obvious to most. It’ll be that overtime loss to Oral Roberts.
“I mean, it sits on my mind pretty heavy,” Liddell said. “It sits on everybody else’s minds pretty heavy, I believe, too. But I mean, you look at Virginia. They lost to a 16 seed. They came back and won a national championship. It's going to help us motivate through the offseason, every workout. Just that heartbreaking loss and that pain that we went through after that loss, I don't think it'll ever leave my mind.”
And he’s surely not alone. Not with how gut-wrenchingly abrupt it was.
Ohio State should bring back its two top scorers in Liddell and Washington. It’ll get back Justice Sueing, and Kyle Young can stay for one more season if he chooses to do so. Seth Towns will aim for a much-awaited healthy season. Zed Key showed potential as a true freshman. Jimmy Sotos will be back. Meechie Johnson got a first-hand education of college hoops.
There’s an undeniable opportunity sitting in front of the Buckeyes to put together a strong bounce-back season, which Liddell realizes.
“If everybody puts in the work they did in the offseason, it's going to be pretty hard to beat us,” Liddell said. “I saw Malaki (Branham) had like 37 in his state championship game. That was pretty cool. Congrats to him. I feel like the young guys coming in give a big help. Meechie Johnson, he used this year to learn a lot from CJ (Walker) and things of that sort. I feel like we can be pretty good.”
His head coach, Chris Holtmann, agrees.
“You're hungry for what we can continue to do,” he said this week on the radio. “The exciting thing is I think we have a chance to have a strong core back and go from there.”