E.J. Liddell gave it some thought. Some real thought.
He went through workouts with various NBA teams, participated in last month’s 40-player G League Elite Camp and took the pre-draft process nearly all the way to the deadline for potential draftees to make a decision about whether to remain in the draft or return to college.
Ultimately, to the benefit of Ohio State and, he hopes, his future draft stock, he chose to stay in college.
By the time he announced he’d stay in school, it was readily apparent that staying in the draft meant he’d almost certainly go unselected. Liddell had minimal draft buzz. The goal, of course, is to spend the next year turning into a legitimate NBA prospect while helping Ohio State to a successful season.
So, how does he go about doing that? Per head coach Chris Holtmann, there are a couple of areas in particular that NBA teams want to see him improve.
“The two things they hit on the most was consistent shooting, defensive versatility,” Holtmann said on Tuesday. “The ball-handling piece was sort of third in their mind, or at least from the people we talked to. I think that's an important skill for him to continue to grow and improve in, but the other two areas, I think, for his development are most important. And most of the NBA teams we talked about. I think it's those three things, really. He's probably got to continue to improve his body. But shooting, defensive versatility and then ball-handling.”
The shooting piece of Liddell’s game has come along nicely, but he can still get better.
The 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward didn't take many threes as a true freshman and missed most of the few he attempted. He went 5-for-26, or 19.2 percent – an eyesore regardless of which numbers you look at. Early in his sophomore year, Liddell remained cautious behind the arc, draining three of 18 triples across the first 11 games of the season.
Then, he caught fire.
Even including his 0-for-7 performance in the Big Ten tournament title game versus Illinois, he shot 38.7 percent (24-of-62) from 3-point range after the midpoint of January. The issue for NBA teams? The sample size is so small. If he can shoot that percentage for an entire season and have evaluators believing he’ll be a threat from downtown at the next level, he’d be a legitimate three-level scorer. He’s already skilled around the basket, even when giving up a few inches, and has a deadly mid-range game.
For Ohio State, too, Liddell turning into a 3-point sniper for a full year would be a significant development. Holtmann and assistant coach Ryan Pedon – who’s in charge of the offense – would welcome that happening.
What’s less clear is how he’ll have to change his game to fit his new role, which should help with showcasing the aforementioned defensive versatility.
A year ago, he often played center, guarding guys like Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn. It was a challenge for somebody who couldn’t be described as anything other than undersized in comparison to those two behemoths. On the other end of the court, however, he frequently took advantage of traditional centers who were often slower and bigger than him.
“I think he had an advantage going into almost every game,” Holtmann said. “He just was an impossible guard. And I think he's going to be hard to guard again.”
It’ll just be a bit different next season.
Holtmann says he expects Liddell to “exclusively” play power forward – the position he'd play in the NBA – rather than center. Oftentimes, he was effectively a four offensively last season, but he still drew centers to guard him and frequently matched up defensively on fives.
“That has been our intent all along,” Holtmann said. “One of the things that, I think, people have maybe forgotten a little bit about is Zed Key had a really good freshman year and he's a big guy. He's maybe not quite as tall as (other centers), but he's a big guy and has got great length, plays with great length, plays much bigger than he is. So we always assumed that Zed was going to play more minutes as he moves forward in his career, obviously. Moving E.J., I think it's best. At the end of the day, it's best for E.J., it's best for his development.”
Ohio State can get creative positionally, too, now that it has ample options in the frontcourt. Joey Brunk is a true center, and Key largely plays like a center at this stage in his career. Kyle Young is both a power forward and a center. Seth Towns can play the four, too.
However Holtmann divvies up the minutes in the frontcourt, though, expect to see plenty of Liddell at the four. Because it’s best for him, as the head coach said, and it’s best for Ohio State to get him on the court as much as possible.