Illini target Liddell is on the rise

Illini target Liddell is on the rise

CHAMPAIGN — E.J. Liddell has rewatched Belleville West’s state championship victory against Whitney Young a few times since the Maroons took down the Dolphins 60-56 in overtime on March 17 in Peoria.

“Probably over 50 times,” the 6-foot-8, 220 pound forward said.

The same aspect always stands out to Liddell. He’s struck by just how hard he and his teammates played — something that carried over throughout the entire 2017-18 season. 

So did Liddell’s dominance during his junior season. Only once did The News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year and Illinois Mr. Basketball winner fail to reach double figures in scoring, finishing the year averaging 20.8 points. He hit double-digit rebounds 14 times in 34 games and double-digit blocks five times. The top crossover of those statistical categories was a 28-point, 12-rebound and 11-block performance in the Washington Tournament of Champions against Sam Houston (Texas) Math & Science.

Dominant.

The rest of Liddell’s spring was a bit more up and down. He struggled  — mostly with his shot — at the start of the Nike EYBL season where his offensive production didn’t always match his defense and energy. 

Liddell started to play more consistently in May. 

He doubled down in June with an all-star selection at the NBPA Top 100 camp, proving himself as one of the top players in the country.

“I feel like I had a decent early spring,” said Liddell, who played this weekend for Brad Beal Elite at Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C. “I could have had a better spring, but I did my role on the team and that helped my team win a lot. That was my biggest thing — wanting to win. I feel like my confidence level kept getting better and better throughout the spring, and it’s just carried over ever since.”

Liddell’s strong June saw him get a corresponding bump in the 2019 Rivals150, jumping five spots to No. 38 overall in the class. He’s ranked 35th by ESPN and 78th by 247Sports as a consensus four-star prospect. His all-star nod in Charlottesville, Va., in June came as he continued to show off his entire game and ability to play on the wing just as effectively as in the paint.

“The (NBPA Top 100) camp was really competitive,” Liddell said. “Everybody wanted to go out there and show why they got invited to that camp. I showed everybody that I can guard any position. I was playing wing and guarding guards the whole time.”

Liddell shot just 25 percent from three-point range on limited opportunities during April and May on the EYBL circuit. That’s a fairly noticeable drop from his junior season at Belleville West where he connected at 35 percent. That part of his game still needs improvement, but he said his ball-handling skills — a regular part of his individual workouts — have reached a new level. 

It shows in his play with Brad Beal Elite. It’s not uncommon to see Liddell pull down a rebound and push the ball in transition himself, which makes a team with guards like Moses Moody, Zion Harmon, Mario McKinney Jr. and Yuri Collins even more dangerous.

“I feel like a lot of people at my position can’t do it, and I feel like I’m one of the best that can do it,” Liddell said. “That really helps out everything on our offense. We can go in transition and don’t have to wait on it.”

Liddell’s evolving game could also drive his recruitment. He has more than a dozen offers and took unofficial visits to Illinois in May and Ohio State in June and said he’s looking for a “home” feeling when he makes those types of visits. Helping establish that connection includes daily interactions with Illinois assistant Jamall Walker and continuing to build his relationship with Illini coach Brad Underwood.

Liddell’s tentative plan is to narrow his list after the final July evaluation period.

“Recruiting is going smooth,” he said. “It’s a lot of coaches calling me every day, a lot of interest coming, but I’m still trying to keep a level head and be humble about it. ... I’m not rushing anything. I’ll make my decision when the time is right and I feel like it’s right.”

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