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Birthday boy E.J. Liddell: The making of a Buckeye superstar

Tracing the development of E.J. Liddell on his 21st birthday.

Wisconsin v Ohio State Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

As I write this piece on Saturday, Dec. 18, Buckeye hoopster E.J. Liddell is celebrating his 21st birthday. Well, with the big game against Kentucky cancelled, he’s probably not celebrating wholeheartedly, but he does have a lot to celebrate.

Liddell came out of Belleville West High School (Illinois) with quite a resumé for himself. In both his junior and his senior high school years, he was named Illinois’ “Mr. Basketball.” And his high school team won back-to-back Illinois Class 4A state championships.

All of the major scouting outfits – 247Sports, Rivals, ESPN – had Liddell ranked in the high 30s or low 40s in the nation and in the top ten among power forwards in his class. Ohio State had shown interest early and got his commitment in the fall of 2018. But even after committing to the Buckeyes, Liddell took an official visit to Champaign as the Illini made a last-ditch recruiting pitch. It didn’t work, and Liddell signed with Ohio State on November 20.

As a freshman during the 2019-20 season, Liddell played in all 31 of the Bucks’ games; however, he didn’t start any of them. I remember his coming off the bench, an instant scoring threat and tough under the basket. I also remember wondering why he didn’t see more playing time. He averaged about 16 and a half minutes per game, and his 6.7 points per game ranked him eighth on the team in scoring. He was a freshman on a good team. He made his contributions and waited his turn.

His turn came last year, his sophomore season. Liddell started all 29 games that he played, after missing a couple of contests in December with a bout of mononucleosis. For the season, his scoring averaged jumped to 16.2 points a game, second only to Duane Washington. Liddell led the team in rebounds with 6.7/game and blocks with 1.1/game. He averaged nearly 30 minutes’ playing time and was, in my view, the best player on the team – usually the best player on the floor. A star.

The one criticism about Liddell was his size. I noticed, when I was researching this story, that the first word in 247 Sports’ recruiting report on Liddell is “undersized.” 247 had him listed as a 6-6, 220 lb. power forward. He often played post, or at least down low, for the Buckeyes in 2020-21 and, naturally enough, had trouble with really big men, like Kofi Cockburn of Illinois. Most people have trouble with Cockburn, but the Buckeyes, as a team, were (are still) undersized.

This year, E.J. Liddell’s game has changed a bit. He plays outside, at the top of the key, much more often. I think that the development of Zed Key has given the Bucks another inside presence that allows Liddell to move outside. And he’s improved his jumper considerably, including a nice three-point shot. Since Liddell can also drive with the basketball, he’s a matchup nightmare for opponents. Who are you going to guard him with? A guard? Too small. A big man? Too slow. Liddell’s versatility is a killer.

In ten games, so far this year, Liddell has taken 34 three-point shots and made 12 of them for a fine .353 percentage. His overall field goal percentage stands at .560. He has, over his three Buckeye seasons, made himself into a superstar. His stats, moreover, show that he’s not only a leader on his team but also in the conference.

In his 29.4 minutes of playing time per game (1st on the team, slightly ahead of Jamari Wheeler), Liddell is averaging 20.6 points (1st on the team, by a large margin), 6.7 rebounds (1st), three blocks (1st), and 2.7 assists (2nd). And Liddell is among Big Ten leaders in these categories, as well: third in field goals, fourth in scoring average, twelfth in total rebounds, and twenty-second in assists. The assist total is particularly remarkable to me. It’s rare to see a forward (power or small – call him what you will) dish it off so frequently. Many of these assists have gone to Key for crowd-pleasing dunks.

With his motor, his floor play, and now his outside shooting, E.J. Liddell has positioned himself as one of the nation’s top all-around players. I’m sure that he’s also upped his NBA stock as he continues to improve from year to year.

As Liddell completes his 20th year, I say “Happy Birthday, E.J.!” Your play during your Buckeye career has been a great present for all OSU fans, and we look forward to many more highlight moments.