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Is E.J. Liddell the next star forward for Ohio State?

The Buckeyes’ big man is entering his second season after finishing the year strong

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

“The 6-foot-6 Liddell made the most of his opportunities with the Buckeyes during his freshman year and his future with the program seems bright. As a freshman, Liddell played in all 31 games. He averaged 16.6 minutes, 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.”

- Steve Helwagen, 247Sports

Some of the most productive Ohio State basketball players in recent times have been forwards. The program has seen an influx of talent at the forward spot in the past few seasons — including guys like Keita Bates-Diop, Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young. With Bates-Diop now two seasons deep into his NBA career, the elder Wesson having just exhausted his eligibility and the younger Wesson potentially entering the NBA Draft, the Buckeyes need to find the next man up.

That guy is E.J. Liddell.

At a time of much uncertainty surrounding Ohio State’s roster, Liddell made his intentions clear on social media last weekend. After losing two of his fellow teammates from the 2019 recruiting class to the transfer portal, the 6-foot-6 forward is the highest-rated remaining player on the roster from that cycle.

Having joined the Buckeyes as the No. 8 PF in his class and the No. 44 overall player in the country, there were obviously lofty expectations for the talented hooper. Liddell admitted that he had been used to being the center of attention on his teams his whole life, and that there was obviously an adjustment that needed to be made at the next level. Despite being a state champion and two-time Illinois state player of the year, it took some time for him to get acclimated to the tough, physical style of play that is Big Ten basketball.

As a result, Liddell spent the majority of the first half of his freshman season in a reserve role, playing less than 20 minutes per game with some small contributions off the bench here and there. It also didn’t help that in front of him were two of Ohio State’s most important players in Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young. However, as the year got later and later, things began to change.

With the calendar nearing the middle of February, Chris Holtmann began calling his freshman’s name more and more. After an injury to Young in the Maryland game that would sideline him for the rest of the season, Liddell really began to step up. Over the Buckeyes’ last six regular season matchups, the first-year forward averaged 10 points and 6.2 rebounds per contest, putting up a career-high 17 points against both Iowa and Illinois with another 12-point outing in the season finale against Michigan State.

You could see Liddell’s confidence growing with each passing game. A bit hesitant to shoot at first, he began to body people underneath with his immense physical strength despite being a bit undersized at his position. He was looking to create his own shots at the offensive end, and was locking down the paint at the other — even recording a five-block game against Nebraska. With Young sidelined, it became Liddell that provided the spark of energy the team needed when times got tough.

Ohio State had a dismal month of January, but finished out the season 9-3 down the stretch with an overall record of 21-10. A less-than-stellar 11-9 record in the Big Ten was offset a bit by a 4-0 record against AP Top 10 teams, having knocked off multiple college basketball blue bloods in Villanova, UNC, Kentucky and Maryland. As a result, the team was projected a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament — one that obviously never came to fruition as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Liddell was a big reason for the team’s success late in the season, and while he did not get the opportunity to play in the postseason in year one, he will still be able to piggyback off his strong finish to come back even stronger in year two. There will be a couple new faces and some missing familiar ones on the Buckeyes’ roster next season, and Liddell could quickly become a leader in the clubhouse as a sophomore.

The forward’s ultimate goal remains to play in the NBA one day. As a big at 6-foot-6, it is probably an uphill climb towards the league. However, Liddell says he models his game off of Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap, who has put together a long and successful professional career as a 6-foot-7 forward. The two share a similar style of play, both possessing the ability to physically outmatch people while also having a solid mid-range game.

Utilizing the phrase made famous by Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, Liddell is “trusting the process,” as he continues to chase his dreams all while looking forward to next season with Ohio State.