He's not ready to leave quite yet.
E.J. Liddell pulled out of 2021 NBA Draft consideration and announced on Saturday that he will remain at Ohio State for the 2021-22 season.
The third-year junior forward was a first-team All-Big Ten selection when he averaged 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season. Now that he's back as an upperclassman, he immediately becomes an early Big Ten Player of the Year candidate – right alongside Trayce Jackson-Davis, Hunter Dickinson and Trevion Williams – and the piece around which Chris Holtmann will build the Buckeyes.
Liddell gave the 2021 NBA Draft ample thought, placing his name in the initial pool of 353 draft prospects on March 31 along with Buckeye teammate Duane Washington Jr. Together, they participated in the 40-player G League Elite Camp, though Washington was the one who stood out most, earning an NBA Draft Combine invitation and ultimately electing to remain in the draft and not return to Ohio State.
Liddell wasn't able to showcase what made him a hard-to-guard forward in the Big Ten in the two G League combine exhibitions. He recorded five points, 11 rebounds, two assists, one block and three turnovers while going 2-9 from the field and 1-5 from 3 with no free-throw attempts in 41 minutes across both games.
By the time Liddell withdrew his name from the draft pool, it had become evident that it was highly unlikely for him to get picked on July 29. His name didn't appear in mock drafts and ESPN's Jonathan Givony no longer has him ranked among the top-100 prospects in the draft.
So, Liddell will go back to school in hopes of raising his stock with another strong season on an Ohio State with big aspirations, especially considering that it's coming off the ugly first-round NCAA tournament loss to Oral Roberts.
“If everybody puts in the work they did in the offseason, it's going to be pretty hard to beat us,” Liddell said in March. “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.”
Part of exactly how good the Buckeyes turn out to be will be determined by the leap Liddell can take.
He went from averaging 6.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 0.5 assists and 0.9 blocks in 16.6 minutes per game off the bench in 2019-20 to putting up 16.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 blocks in 29.4 minutes per game in 2020-21. Seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of the season, the team's focal point added a legitimate 3-point stroke to his repertoire, making him somebody who had to be watched at all three levels. As Liddell looks to better his defensive mobility and conditioning, he'll try to further improve that outside shot which is a key part of what would make him a more intriguing NBA prospect.
Notably, he's also he's expected to move back to power forward – his more natural position and, coincidentally or not, the one he'll eventually play at the next level – which leave sophomore Zed Key and Indiana center Joey Brunk to serve as Ohio State's primary centers.
Last year, he primarily served as the Buckeyes' center. He weighs more than 240 pounds with a nearly 7-foot wingspan, but he doesn't even stand 6-foot-6 without shoes. At that size, Liddell took advantage of mismatches with centers on the offensive end but oftentimes was left trying to defend significantly larger post players on the block. In the 2021-22 season, it'll be Key and Brunk – along with fifth-year Kyle Young – who'll mostly have those types of assignments.