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Exploring the Defensive Strengths and Growth Areas For EJ Liddell

Dakota Schmidt explores the defensive strengths and areas of growth for Ohio State forward and current NBA Draft prospect EJ Liddell

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

Last Sunday, yours truly wrote a piece examining the offensive skill set of EJ LIddell while exploring potential areas that the 20-year-old should work to continue to develop at once he makes the leap to the pros, whether that be in the NBA or G League. Although much of the vibe within that piece was positive, which makes sense given the tremendous growth that allowed him to be named by the coaches to the All-Big Ten First Team, it’s safe to say that he still has room to grow towards his path towards becoming the player that I honestly he can become in the future.

Now transitioning over to the other end of the ball, that same thought process persists. Last year with Ohio State, Liddell was put to the task of defending some of the biggest giants of college basketball like 7’0, 290 pound Illinois sophomore Kofi Cockburn, 7’1, 255 pound Michigan freshman Hunter Dickinson, and 6’11, 260 pound Iowa senior Luka Garza. Despite being significantly undersized for those battles through entering his sophomore year standing 6’7 240 pounds, he held his own with trying to defend those massive foes in the low-post or working to snag offensive or defensive rebounds.

In regards to defending in the low-post, he was able to overcome the height disadvantage by simply being a fighter through trying to front to prevent entry passes, using his quick feet and bigger lower body to try to push his foes to go to the block they weren’t comfortable in, or putting his arms in the area to prevent the opponent from getting a better look at the rim. An example of that is seen in the clip below where he does a great job of making things challenging for Hunter Dickinson in the low-post to the point of pushing him closer to out of bounds. That work combined with getting on his hip after Dickson moves right forces the big to lose control of the ball and commit a turnover.

That type of fight is both great to see and an absolute necessity given how he was undersized in a conference filled with giants. However, the sheer height of his competitors was enough to push them to score despite the fight that Liddell shows. According to Synergy Sports, opponents shot 50% or .838 points per possession against Liddell, which was in the 49th percentile. Fortunately, our subject won’t be put in those types of predicaments as much in the NBA or G League as post-up touches have fallen by the wayside in the last decade.

An example of that is seen by how the Philadelphia 76ers, who had post-ups represent 10.2% of their offense in 2020-21 ,were the only team in the NBA that went into the double-digits in percentages. Just five seasons prior in 2015-16, when we were right at the beginning of the three-point revolution, there were five teams that had 10% or more of their offensive possessions come in the low-post.

The trend away from the utilization of post-ups by pro teams and a push towards motion and perimeter play will mean that the sophomore from Belleville, Illinois will be used in different ways at the pro level. During the prior season, we saw some glimpses of how comfortable our subject is working on the perimeter, as there were several occasions where he was asked to hedge, close and switch on the perimeter.

In those opportunities, the Ohio State sophomore showed plenty of promise. Despite him being a bigger player, there’s a lot of mobility shown as he’s able to move his feet well both vertically and horizontally, which obviously helped in the instances where he was asked to move away from within the paint.

An example of this is evident in the play below as he starts the possession by doing a great job of hedging on Chaundee Brown to stop his progress as a ball-handler and force a pass. After shuffling his feet down to go back to his man Austin Davis, he moves back up to the perimeter to come up and try to pressure Franz Wagner, who throws a feed inside to Davis once Liddell slid his way up to the perimeter.

Was that the best decision for him to make? Probably not. However, his work in that clp shows that he’s mobile for a player of his size, knows the best angle to take to hedge, and was able to get back to his man in a quick enough fashion. All of those tools can make you optimistic that he can do it at a pro level, whether that’s college or NBA.

Sticking on the perimeter, he’s also shown glimpses of being able to switch onto wings and defend in space. When it comes to his knack of switching, it’s definitely a work in progress as there are clear strengths and growth areas for him. In regards to the positives, Liddell is able to to move his feet and use his length to stay in front of guards or wings that are trying to use dribble moves to get an open look. An example of that is seen in the clip below as the Ohio State forward does a great job of staying on Ron Harper Jr. despite him creating a lot of distance with a step-back move.

Now in regards to growth areas, defending in space is one element of concern. When he’s asked to defend off-ball on the perimeter, Liddell tends to ball watch and figuring out the correct angle to use to stay in front or on the hip of his man when they’re driving to the paint.

Both of those elements are seen below where he’s put to the task of guarding impressive Illinois guard Andre Curbelo. Now, the play starts with the forward doing a great job of immediately switching on the ball-handler and sliding his feet to stay on the guard’s hip and keeping his hands up to prevent a clean drive to the rim. However, the difficulty begins when Illinois resets on the perimeter as Liddell’s tendency to ball-watch allows #5 to slide his feet horizontally to have a clean path to the right lane. Although, our subject works to recover even before the opponent receives the pass, that brief lapse plus a screen set down low by Giorgi Bezhanishvili leads to an easy bucket for the Fighting Illini in their battle against a conference foe.

Despite that significant flaw, there’s still optimism about his knack of working out on the perimeter. However, the positive expectation will rise once he gets added to an NBA team with a quality strength and conditioning program. That prerequisite is important as Liddell will have to make changes to his body from needing the extra weight to fight inside with the giants of the Big Ten to the world of the NBA or G League that’s more fast-paced and oriented around guard and wing play. Also, as a player that stands at 6’7, you’d imagine that NBA teams would prefer him to work more as a small forward or power forward than the center role that he played while at Ohio State.

While there’s optimism that those changes can be made and he’ll be better equipped to handle everything that comes with defending on the perimeter in an NBA or G League game that’s focused on guard or wing play, that’s a process that’s going to take a while. Luckily, the odds of him getting signed to a two-way deal if he doesn’t get drafted area high, which would be a great opportunity for the 20-year-old as he’ll be able to spend the off-season with a quality strength and conditioning team before transferring over to the G League where he’d get plenty of reps to grow and get familiar with the pace and different ways of how to defend pick-and-rolls.

Although he could have that chance after his junior or senior season, it would be best for him to go the pro route now. That way, he can still be able to make the adjustments to his body and learn more about defending on the perimeter and various pick-and-roll actions rather than spend another year at Ohio State, where the chances of him sticking to his role as a small and more burly center that has to defend giants will likely persist.

If that persistence continues, I would become scared that his potential as a pro prospect will diminish from the level that it’s currently at as NBA teams would be less likely to take a chance on a 21 or 22-year-old prospect that has been in that role for multiple years than his current status as a 20-year-old that only has one year as a starter under his belt. All of those reasons are why it would be best for EJ Liddell to stick in the NBA Draft with the hopes of using this fall as a time to grow in the G League before hopefully making the transition to the NBA in the future.