Little by Liddell, his stock is rising

Little by Liddell, his stock is rising

CHAMPAIGN — E.J. Liddell was strictly a back-to-the-basket player at the beginning of his freshman season at Belleville West. Fairly effective, but only the tip of the iceberg of what he's proven to be capable of since.

But coaches that saw Liddell play this past spring and summer might have gotten a similar impression to what he showed in his earliest high school days.

Playing up an age group for Bradley Beal Elite on the Nike EYBL circuit, Liddell filled a role. Five-star guard Darius Garland was the focal point of the team. Liddell and fellow Class of 2019 forward Francis Okoro split time as secondary scoring options in the post, while primarily serving as rebounders and rim protectors.

Liddell's national profile has taken a serious turn upward this winter. His expanded skill set has been on full display leading West to a 15-1 record, and high major coaches and recruiting services alike are taking note. Liddell has added scholarship offers from Northwestern, Florida and Ohio State in the last month, and the 6-foot-7, four-star forward jumped 52 spots to No. 42 in the Class of 2019 in the Rivals rankings.

"It's good to know that all these schools think they see potential in me," said Liddell, who holds more than a dozen Division I offers. "I feel like I can play anywhere in the country basically. I feel like I've opened up a lot of eyes. I've always had that (skill set), but I never really had the confidence to do it. When I played with Bradley Beal in the summer it was a lot of back to the basket and not shooting a lot of threes. Now I'm doing everything."

The leap Liddell made in the Rivals150 was always a when, not if, proposition in Joe Henricksen's opinion. The publisher of City/Suburban Hoops Report and longtime authority on high school basketball in Illinois has Liddell at the top of his 2019 in-state rankings ahead of Okoro.

"I know everybody has Okoro No. 1, and you could argue that," Henricksen said. "It's not clear cut by any means. When you're talking sure thing of what a player can be at the college level down the road, I just think E.J. Liddell is a no brainer. His combination of productivity with the motor he plays with sticks out to you."


Liddell is averaging 21.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.1 blocks and 2.4 assists for West through 16 games.

Notable beyond his per game averages are his shooting percentages. He's connecting at better than 60 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and almost 78 percent at the free throw line.

"That's the the thing that's so impressive about him," West coach Joe Muniz said. "You can leave him wide open at the top, and he's going to make that shot. You can get up close and guard him with a big man, and he's going around people. He's really hard to guard because he can score at all levels on the floor."

The 6-foot-7, 220-pound Liddell putting his evolving all-around game on display this winter has driven the rise in his national profile. While 247Sports hasn't updated its 2019 rankings like Rivals did earlier this week, a similar move isn't out of the picture when they do.

"He's always been a tough kid that can score inside, but he was undersized," said 247Sports recruiting analyst Brian Snow. "Now he's making threes, he looks good doing it (and) he's gotten more explosive. There's just a lot to like about his growth trajectory right now.

"There's going to be an exception to every rule, but at the end of the day a 6-foot-6ish power forward without much range is going to struggle at the college game. The fact he expanded his game and got more diverse with what he can do, was it 100 percent necessary? Probably not, but it certainly helps the process."

Liddell's inside game has also improved. He credits a boost in upper body strength for being able to finish at the rim and leg strength that's allowed him to jump higher and rebound more. The boost in confidence in his game has meant more, though.

"I've always known I could make threes, but I never really had the confidence to shoot them," Liddell said, adding working with St. Louis area coach Corey Frazier has helped. "When I'm open now, I feel like I'm going to knock it down."


Liddell's expanded skill set is pushing him over the top as a high major recruit. How he can dominate on the block — even with his strength and athleticism edge against high school opponents — is something both Henricksen and Snow said can translate to the next level.

"Rebounding translates," Henricksen said. "He's just a kid who rebounds well in terms of reaching the ball at its highest point. He's got pretty good lift. He's not a freak athlete, but he's more than a good enough athlete.

"He alters shots on the defensive end and blocks shots that kind of defy even his own size. Those things are both going to translate. He has those instincts. This is why I love him. So much of it translates because of his motor."

Even at just 6-7, Liddell has a college-ready body and an aggressiveness in his game that can even out any edge he gives up to the bigger opponents he'll eventually face in college.

"The toughest dude tends to win the battle," Snow said, "and he's one of the toughest dudes out there."


Liddell isn't naming any favorites on the recruiting front at this stage, but he did get an opportunity to see two of his more dogged pursuers play against each other last month at the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis.

A guest of Missouri — the Tigers were the home team — Liddell had a front row seat to Illinois' 70-64 victory on Dec. 23.

"The atmosphere was crazy — a lot of people yelling," Liddell said. "A lot of people coming up and talking to me about how I should go to Mizzou or Illinois. It was a crazy environment. It was kind of funny. I never expected attention like that."

Illinois and Missouri were among Liddell's earliest offers, with the Illini actually in on him first. Both programs have since changed coaches, but their pursuit hasn't wavered.

Illinois maintained a link when Brad Underwood kept assistant coach Jamall Walker on his new Illini coaching staff.

"Coach Walker has been there since the beginning," Liddell said. "I think he knows me a lot now. That makes a difference. Illinois has been there since the beginning."

That long-term relationship is one Henricksen said could pay off for Illinois. That, and the playing time the Illini could immediately offer the rapidly rising power wing.

"I know they're struggling, but they have a lot to sell," Henricksen said. "Kids want to play early. The opportunity at Illinois to play early is massive. ... It's just there for the taking — 30 minutes for E.J. Liddell as a freshman. I don't think, truly, very many schools will be able to offer that at a high major level. There will be some, but there's no question Illinois can offer that."