2018 N-G All-State boys' basketball Player of the Year: Belleville West's E.J. Liddell

2018 N-G All-State boys' basketball Player of the Year: Belleville West's E.J. Liddell

BELLEVILLE — E.J. Liddell first popped up on Joe Muniz's radar in 2012.

The Belleville West boys' basketball coach received some insider information on Liddell from one of his teaching and coaching colleagues, Bob Keefe, who doubled as a junior high basketball official.

Keefe's advice to Muniz? You might want to take an interest in Liddell, then in elementary school.

"He came to my classroom one day and goes, 'Man, there's a kid at Signal Hill School that's really, really good,'" Muniz said. "I said, 'Really, how old is he?' He said, 'He's only in fifth grade, but he can play with the eighth graders.'"

Muniz watched Liddell play during junior high. Coached him at his basketball camp. It's where he found out the type of player he would eventually have on his roster.

"I'll be honest, he was a good player in junior high and had that dog in him," Muniz said. "He did not like to lose. He competed every second he was on the court."

Little has changed — at least in terms of Liddell's competitive nature — in the subsequent years. His game has evolved to where he's added "score at all three levels" to his rebounding and defensive presence, but the 6-foot-7 forward is still a fiery competitor.

That shone through this season. Liddell was the undisputed Belleville West leader from Day 1, averaging 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.9 blocks and 2.8 assists per game and put up a shooting slash line of 65/35/79. The Maroons didn't lose to a single team from the state of Illinois en route to a 30-2 finish and a Class 4A state championship — the first title in program history.

It adds up to Liddell earning News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year honors, keeping up a Metro East run following Edwardsville’s Mark Smith and Belleville Althoff’s Jordan Goodwin.

Belleville West’s state championship victory against Whitney Young was a microcosm of Liddell’s season. He finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks in the title game and didn’t falter after missing a potential game winner at the end of regulation by scoring the first points in overtime to give the Maroons a lead they’d never relinquish.

“That made a statement, and I feel like us not losing to an Illinois team all year showed that downstate teams have it, too,” Liddell said in beating Whitney Young. “There are a lot of great teams in Chicago, but we just went up there and did our best, played our hardest — how we played all year and didn’t change anything — and that’s how we beat one of the best teams in the state.

"When I was up there I was enjoying every minute of it. It was a great experience. We played two great games and I’m happy we came home with the title.”

Liddell comes by his athleticism naturally. His dad, Eric, was a four-year starter at tackle at Illinois State. His mom, Michelle, played volleyball at ISU and still holds the Redbirds’ record for solo blocks in a match.

Liddell comes by his competitiveness naturally, too.

“My parents are competitive also,” he said. “My mom loves to win, and my dad did, too.”

It’s what Muniz saw from seventh-grade Liddell during Belleville West’s camp. His teams usually won because he made sure they did. Muniz saw it again during Liddell’s first summer league game with the Maroons before his freshman season.

“I walked out of there and I’m like, ‘This kid is going to be special,’” Muniz said. “He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t back down. He competed.

“From that day forward, I was like, ‘He just won himself a starting spot in his first summer league game.’ He garnered a lot of respect in that game.”

Liddell has continued to earn his teammates’ respect. His growth this season came in becoming the leader the Maroons needed with few seniors on the roster.

“I feel like I really improved as a leader, and I brought the team together as one,” Liddell said. “Everybody bonded really well. Having that leadership role brings everyone together. If you don’t have a leader on the team, then you don’t have anybody to be the voice of the team.”
---- Muniz grew to count on Liddell even more this season. If he told Liddell something had to be done, it got done.

“He’s just one of these guys that all season long he’d come up and go, ‘We’ve got this coach. We’ve got this,’” Muniz said. “I’m nervous as heck, and I don’t think it even fazes him. It gave me assurance. I knew he was ready. He made sure everybody else was ready. He does have that easy confidence. He exudes enthusiasm. He’s just a special kid.”

Muniz still has another season with Liddell — something he said thrills him because working with players like Liddell are sometimes once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for coaches. In the interim, Liddell is turning his competitive nature on the grassroots circuit and Nike EYBL with Bradley Beal Elite.

Already a top 50 prospect in the Class of 2019 with offers with nearly a dozen scholarship offers — including Illinois, Florida, Ohio State, Iowa and Missouri — Liddell is confident he’ll open more eyes this spring and summer.

“I think it’s going to blow up because a lot of coaches saw me last year, but they didn’t see my full game,” he said. “I hope it goes really well. I just want to get to know all the coaches that are trying to recruit me. I need to get to know them to be comfortable at their school.”

Previous News-Gazette All-State boys’ basketball Players of the Year

YEAR ATHLETE SCHOOL

2018 E.J. Liddell Belleville West
2017 Mark Smith Edwardsville
2016 Jordan Goodwin Belleville Althoff
2015 Jalen Brunson Stevenson
2014 Jahlil Okafor Chicago Whitney Young
2013 Jabari Parker Chicago Simeon
2012 Jabari Parker Chicago Simeon
2011 Chasson Randle Rock Island
2010 Rayvonte Rice Centennial
2009 Jereme Richmond Waukegan
2008 Lewis Jackson Decatur Eisenhower
2007 Derrick Rose Chicago Simeon
2006 Jon Scheyer Glenbrook North
2005 Jon Scheyer Glenbrook North
2004 Shaun Livingston Peoria Central
2003 Shannon Brown Proviso East
2002 Dee Brown Proviso East
2001 Eddy Curry Thornwood
2000 Darius Miles East St. Louis
1999 Brian Cook Lincoln
1998 Quentin Richardson Chicago Whitney Young
1997 Sergio McClain Peoria Manual
1996 Ronnie Fields Chicago Farragut
1995 Kevin Garnett Chicago Farragut
1994 Antoine Walker Chicago Mount Carmel
1993 Rashard Griffith Chicago King
1992 Chris Collins Glenbrook North
1991 Howard Nathan Peoria Manual
1990 Jamie Brandon Chicago King
1989 Jamie Brandon Chicago King
1988 LaPhonso Ellis East St. Louis Lincoln
1987 Marcus Liberty Chicago King
1986 Larry Smith Alton
Nick Anderson Chicago Simeon
1985 Ed Horton Springfield Lanphier
1984 Roger McClendon Centennial
1983 Marty Simmons Lawrenceville

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