Illini target Liddell's precipitous rise in the rankings continues

Illini target Liddell's precipitous rise in the rankings continues

CHAMPAIGN — E.J. Liddell climbed 25 spots in the Class of 2019 when 247Sports updated its rankings last week. The 6-foot-7 forward now checks in at No. 57 in the country on that list, bringing the Belleville West product's rankings a little more in line since Rivals has him at No. 39 in the senior class.

Liddell's rankings have fluctuated the past two years even if his play hasn't. He put up monster numbers in leading Belleville West to a Class 4A state title this season — earning News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year and Illinois Mr. Basketball honors in the process — while also playing a key role for Brad Beal Elite on the Nike EYBL circuit for a second spring and summer in a row.

But the growing consensus is Liddell is a top prospect in the 2019 class.

"It's funny," Rivals national recruiting analyst Corey Evans said. "Ten years ago we're calling him a tweener, and he might not be a top-150 prospect. Now he's this combo forward — small ball 4-man — that can do a lot, and he's the perfect position-less ball player. ... You talk about a guy that's incrementally improved throughout the past few years, and what you have is a really interesting prospect that can maneuver all throughout the floor."

Liddell followed up his junior season at Belleville West — 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.9 blocks and 2.8 assists per game for the 32-2 championship squad — by averaging 14 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the EYBL. Another breakout performance at the NBAPA Top 100 camp in June and a bump in his production at Peach Jam helped earn him the rankings boost.

"He's just one of the toughest kids in the country, and he's super productive," said Brian Snow, a 247Sports recruiting analyst. "At the end of the day he's a little bit undersized. That limits what some people like, but he is just so tough, he's athletic and he plays so hard. He'll be a very productive college basketball player."

At the other end of the big man spectrum from Liddell is Kofi Cockburn, who held steady at No. 39 in the 2019 class in the 247Sports rankings update. While Liddell's body and game epitomize the growing trend of versatile forwards in a position-less game, Cockburn checks in at 6-11 and 302 pounds. An old school, true center.

"Talking about for as good as it is now for E.J. Liddell, it's that bad of a time for Kofi," Evans said. "Fifteen years ago, Kofi Cockburn's a surefire top-five prospect in America. Now it's like, 'Where does he fit offensively? Can he guard a ball screen? How does he fit in an up-and-down pace?'"

Cockburn might have few peers when it comes to sheer physicality on the court, but the shift in basketball trends hasn't hurt his production. He was a second team all-state selection in New York after averaging 12.5 points as a junior at traditional city power Christ the King, and he's headed to Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., after putting up 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game for New York Renaissance on the EYBL circuit this year.

"There's still a spot for a true center — especially one who can score, rebound and run the court a little bit," Snow said. "At the end of the day you've got to adjust what you can do defensively somewhat, but there's definitely a spot for a guy like him. He's so humongous that he can just control areas of the court."

Illinois is actively pursuing both Liddell and Cockburn. Both types of bigs can fit in Illini coach Brad Underwood's system. The improvements Cockburn made in his overall game in the last year certainly help.

"He's not just a banger down low that relies on physicality," Evans said. "He can score facing the bucket off a 10-foot, one-legged turnaround jumper. He can score over either shoulder. He has really good hands. You definitely have to fit a system around him. You need athletes around him. You need shooters around him for spacing. But he's talented, he's productive and he's tough."

The Illini made Cockburn's top 12 in late July. Liddell, who named Illinois to his top five less than two weeks ago, has a more focused list. He'll make his first of five visits next weekend to Ohio State.

"Ohio State and Illinois have far and away the most momentum," Snow said.

Evans agreed, but also included Missouri and Kansas State still as potential landing spots for the four-star forward.

"He's definitely priority one for Illinois right now," Evans said. "I think Ohio State is the team to beat. He's visiting there next weekend. We'll see how that goes. I think Illinois and Missouri are right there — 2a and 2b. I wouldn't discount Kansas State. Bruce Weber and those guys have invested a lot of time in him as well."

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.