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Exploring the Offensive Game and Potential Of Ohio State Forward EJ Liddell

Dakota Schmidt writes about the offensive game and potential of Ohio State forward EJ Liddell, who has declared for the 2021 NBA Draft

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

On March 19th, the 15th seeded Oral Roberts were one of the handful of teams to shock the world in one weekend when they upset the 2nd seeded Ohio State 75-72 in the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament. That victory was led by the duo of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor, who combined to score 59 of the team’s points in their run to knock down a squad that was in the top-10 in the AP Poll for the later stages of the regular season and their run in the Big Ten title.

While his team experienced immense disappointment on that day, sophomore forward E.J. Liddell had a tremendous game from a statistical perspective. In 39 minutes, he put up 23 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 assists on 10-15 from the field, 1-3 from beyond the arc, and 2-4 from the charity stripe. Unfortunately, certain individuals weren’t able to appreciate a great performance in the hard-fought defeat as the 20-year-old unfortunately received a slew of heinous and threatening messages on social media from a group of absolutely cowardice individuals.

After everything that he faced that night when it came to the crushing defeat and awful treatment on social media, there may have been some unfortunate negativity surrounding the young man born in Belleview, Illinois. However, that thought should absolutely be the furthest thing from your mind as Liddell was outstanding during his sophomore season when it came to his impact on Ohio State and establishing a potential future at the pro level.

When it came to the first thing, the 6’7 forward impressed from a statistical perspective by putting up 16.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.1 blocks on 47% from the field and 34% from beyond the arc on 2.8 attempts per game. Those percentages allowed him to maintain a 57% True Shooting Percentage and 52% effective Field Goal Percentage.

Compared to his freshman season, all of the per-game numbers rose significantly due to the boost in playing time, through minutes per game average grew from 17 in 2019-20 to 29 during this past season. More important than the unsurprising boost in averages due to him gaining a larger role as a sophomore, Liddell’s efficiency progressed tremendously through maintaining a 54% TS% and 48% eFG% during his initial season in college hoops.

Much of those improved numbers comes from the progressions that our subject made as a shooter as that 34% three-point percentage is a huge upgrade due to him not shooting better than 22% from 3 during both his freshman season and time in the EYBL with the Bradley Beal Elite squad in the summer of 2018. That development largely deals with his use as a catch-and-shoot threat. As one of the main screeners on the team, a lot of those looks unsurprisingly come with him popping out to the top of the three-point line.

In terms of the future, you’d like to see more experimentation of him working off-the-ball as him standing at 6’7 would make you believe that he’d do more work as a small or power forward at the pro level rather than his status as a center at Ohio State. Although the 20-year-old has a lot of work ahead of him when it comes to being a more efficient shooter while also becoming more diverse in the way that he’s able to get shots off. While that’s a lot, Liddell is still young and his smooth stroke, good footwork, and the progression that he made between his freshman and sophomore season are reasons for optimism if he’s signed with a team with a great player development system in place.

Speaking of areas where Liddell will need to show more growth if he looks to make the transition to G League or NBA ball, moving with the ball is not a skill that he showed at Ohio State. That’s no fault of Liddell as the forward’s role with the team was rolling towards the rim, popping to the perimeter and hitting catch-and-shoot 3’s, manning the low-post, and trying to grab offensive boards over giants like Kofi Cockburn, Hunter Dickinson, and Luka Garza.

Despite not being a big part of his offensive arsenal as a member of Ohio State, he shows flashes in this area as he’s comfortable working with the ball in his hands and shows great burst for a forward that stands at 6’7, 240 pounds. An example of that burst is evident in the clip below as the Belleville, Illinois native uses a quick first step to move past the closeout man before bursting to the paint, taking advantage of the open lane, and finishing with a right-handed layup. These types of moves should become more common if/when he makes the transition to the G League.

Looking away from those areas of improvement that an organization should focus on once he gets signed to a deal, there are parts of his offensive arsenal that allowed him to be the eighth highest scoring player in the Big Ten during the 2020-21 season. Within Chris Holtmann’s offensive scheme, Liddell was placed down in the low post on a lot of possession, as 29.7% of the offensive possessions where he had the ball came in post-up situations, according to Synergy Sports.

When it came to helping the team’s offense, that approach worked wonderfully as the forward showed a real knack on both the left and right block to shoot 48% or average .922 Points Per Possession, which placed him in the 69th percentile. For one, the sophomore was able to use his 240 pound frame to overpower some of the wings or guards that were put to the task of switching onto him, which obviously led to him getting a better look at the rim. If that approach doesn’t work, he still knows how to score through having the touch to hit fadeaway jumpers or go over his left shoulder for the occasional hook shot.

Sticking with his work closer to the rim, Liddell’s quickness for a player his size combined with soft hands allowed him to be a good roll man for facilitators to work with. Although he isn’t explosive enough to go up for alley-oops, his ability to move past his defender to get in position down low pushed our subject to be a target for fouls. As a sophomore, he averaged 5.8 free throw attempts, where he shot 75%. That in addition to his touch around the rim allowed him to be an effective roll man.

From an offensive perspective, it’s more than fair to say that Liddell isn’t close to being a finished product. Because compared to his freshman season and time at the AAU level, he’s become a more reliable threat from both beyond the arc and at the free-throw line, which are both great signs for his future as a shooter at either the NBA or G League level. In addition to that, the forward’s ability as an inside presence, especially in the low-post and as a roll man allowed him to be a reliable scoring threat despite being in a league that was dominated by giants that were significantly taller and heavier than the 20-year-old.

However, his status as a potential two-way or exhibit 10 prospect despite being as young as he is means that there are areas of tremendous uncertainty. A lot of that deals with trying to figure out which position that he’d play at the pro level and figuring out the ways to develop him so that he can be a reliable player at a whole new position. While a lot of that change will come from understanding the changes that he’d make on the defensive end, that transfer means that there might be a need for him to expand his game, whether it’s working off-ball more as a catch-and-shoot threat, expanding as an on-ball driver that would work on the perimeter or on the top of the key, or show how comfortable he can be in that area as a passer so he can evolve into being a triple-threat option.

At this point, much of that is a more optimistic view. However, yours truly has used the last 1,375 words to describe that the Ohio State forward shows flashes in these skills to the point where it’s logical to think that he can expand on these traits enough where he’s valuable enough on this end to stick on the 2nd unit of an NBA roster.

However, it seems that the only way that development can truly commence is if he makes the leap to the NBA Draft despite not being guaranteed to get selected. Despite the risk, you’d presume that an NBA organization can see the progression from his freshman to sophomore season, potential as a shooter, ability to create his own look around the rim, and then decide to use one of their two-way picks on him. That would eventually lead to him transitioning to the G League, which honestly seems like the best place for him to further develop as the more free-flowing nature of the league and its offenses should give him more freedom to experiment on his evolving as a player within the landscape of live in-game action. That way, he can see how his development is coming along in matchups against talented competition.