Prospect Microscope: E.J. Liddell
The Ohio State Buckeye might be the prospect who suits Minnesota's needs the most.
For Tim Connelly, freshly-minted President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, there are going to be a plethora of options for him with the 19th pick in the draft. It’s his first move as one of the wealthiest lead executives in the league and all of the eyes around the fan base will be fixated firmly on it.
The previously dissected Tari Eason could require a draft-night move, the bewildering Jaden Hardy would demand some steel ones to select, and perhaps looking at Minnesota’s size issues and drafting the enormous Walker Kessler would be the most on-the-nose move of the lot. But, sometimes, the answer is right there, almost so obvious it’s easy to look past it. When weighing Minnesota’s needs and meshing them with the crapshoot area they’re picking, E.J. Liddell feels like that plain-to-see answer.
The Ohio State product embraced the feedback he was given during last season’s draft cycle and returned to his Buckeyes in better shape and with a wholly expanded game, pushing his way firmly into first round discussions after being named All-Big Ten and Big Ten All-Defense on the back of a dominant season. Even with fellow first-rounder Malaki Branham alongside him, the 21-year-old was the lighthouse for a consistently tough and gritty Ohio State squad.
He isn’t the riskiest move and therefore he isn’t the sexiest. Maybe his potential ceiling isn’t glistening with the same sort of mouth-watering shine as some of the aforementioned names. Perhaps his physical limitations seep into the mind of Minnesota’s front office and poison them into overlooking him. However, with a versatile and energetic game that is dripping with winning mentality, Liddell might just be the pick that elevates a Minnesota team that doesn’t necessarily need to swing for the fences.
Draft Age: 21.50
Position: Power Forward/Small-Ball Center
Weight: 243 lbs
Basic Stats: 33.2 MPG, 19.4 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.6 BPG, 0.6 SPG, 2.4 TO, 2.5 PF, 49% FG (12.9 FGA), 37.4% 3PT (3.8 3PA), 76.5% FT (6.9 FTA)
Per 36-Minute Stats: 21.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.6 BPG, 2.8 BPG, 0.6 SPG, 2.6 TO, 2.7 PF
Advanced Stats: 8.5 OBPM, 3.3 DBPM, 11.8 BPM, 30.5 PER, 59.8% TS, 54.6% EFG, 30.5% USG
Why The Wolves Should Want Liddell
Pace Pusher and Sweat Merchant
The Timberwolves benefited greatly from incumbent power forward Jarred Vanderbilt’s sweat equity last season. No matter what V8 was operating in, how many niggles were weighing him down, or what the numbers on the scoreboard showed, Vanderbilt was a workhorse. Liddell, in his own unique way, shares those same qualities. For the Wolves, the more the better.
Where Vanderbilt was more of a passing lane pilferer, rotation-to-rotation defensive menace, and frenetic rebounder, Liddell’s extra efforts chiefly come in the form of an unrelenting mentality to be in the right positions to make plays at the rim on both ends. The defensive side of his game requires its own shiny subheading, but there is plenty to glean about Liddell’s psychology from watching what he does as a rim-running presence on offense.
Rim-running, in general, spouts forth an image of a rumbling behemoth crunching his way through the middle of the floor in halfcourt sets for a pick-and-roll dunk. However, undersized as he is, Liddell can’t rely on consistently besting rim-protecting forces against a set defense. Instead, he drains the life out of those guarding him with constant end-to-end sprints — with or without the ball in hand.
Is there a clearer example of an unquenchable thirst for helping his team win than this?
Look at how quickly Liddell gets his 6-foot-7, 243 lb frame motoring past every other player on the floor, sealing the smaller Seton Hall defender under the rim for the easy bucket. For a player who loved to wield his weapons in the post at Ohio State — something he will rarely do in the NBA — these kinds of buckets will immediately translate to the big leagues.
It takes no offensive hijacking and no playcalling for Liddell to get these easy points. They’re transition opportunities birthed purely by will. Many other bigs or forwards would be content to traipse into an offensive set and take the time to catch a breather after a successful defensive possession, but Liddell treats every opponent miss as a track meet. For a team like the Timberwolves, one that has been openly instructed by head coach Chris Finch to play with pace off misses or makes, Liddell’s toiling tidal wave runs and early seals in transition would be a dynamic new layer to their offense.
These gut-running forays are a constant in Liddell’s game, and they slice open defenses whilst demanding that the scrambling defenders crossmatch in the broken floor. Most bigs or forwards who would be comfortable guarding Liddell on the deep block are too slow or plain unwilling to go end-to-end with him, so he is able to wall off smaller opponents and make them pay at the rim.
It doesn’t hurt that, despite the low-ish volume, Liddell was finishing at a tasty 69.9 percent at the rim (58-of-83). If he gets deep position with his burrowing sprints, he can finish with the power of a rim-rocker, the finesse of a contorting layup with either hand, or the touch of a fading jumper.
And, if nobody is home to provide even the lackluster blockade of an early seal, he will just outsprint everybody and make the finish naught but a formality. He forces the defense to beware of him perpetually. A mighty fine thing to have in a low-usage role player who projects to make a living as more of a bit-part scorer.
Where things begin to get really enticing, particularly for the athletic and transition-minded Wolves, is when Liddell isn’t just the one finishing the break — he’s the one starting it. Despite his girthy frame, Liddell is a smooth mover. He balances that galloping rhinoceros vibe with a balletic ability to make the right decision with the ball in hand once he crosses midcourt.
The 21-year-old is able to bulldoze through hapless opponents if a lane shifts open in front of him, he can walk into a pull-up triple if the defense backs off and, perhaps most importantly for the role he would play in Timberwolves colors, he is able to make clean passing reads in self-created transition situations.
Here, you see him hit the middle-moving big:
And here you see his presence tilt the defense toward the ball, allowing him to locate the spot-up shooter:
On the spectrum of things NBA players can do, Liddell’s pace-pushing certainly isn’t the most outrageous. However, as a legitimate modern-day power forward with other modern-day power forward skills, the Timberwolves would do well to employ someone with the ability to manufacture fast break opportunities — and thus easy points — for himself and his teammates.
The Wolves had trouble figuring out a way to deploy their frantic up-and-back pace while maintaining both rebounding chops and floor-spacing. From what Liddell showed in his final and most impressive year of college hoops, he has the ability to not only survive that style, but add to it.
Floor-Spacing and Shot-Making
It’s almost undeniable that Liddell is going to have to conform to a new role when he takes the leap up to the highest level of basketball on the planet. That’s true for almost every prospect, especially those selected outside of the lottery, but Liddell’s comfort zone for Ohio State was as an offensive linchpin who would spend lengthy periods jostling for position on the block and making plays for himself or his standstill teammates once the ball found him there.
Now, as he shifts into a league where he is a small fish in a big and scary pond, he will need to adapt to new waters. Fortunately, because of his ability to make jumpers in a variety of different ways, he should be able to slide into a low-usage role seamlessly.
The Timberwolves craved a strong power forward who could do the slimy work a power forward needs to do while still being able to space the floor around Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards effectively and Liddell has all the makings of that hand-in-glove fit.
After going from 19.2 percent from deep in his freshman season to 33.8 percent in year two, the Illinois native became a serious threat from long-range in his final campaign with the Buckeyes, nailing 37.4 percent on a career-high 3.8 attempts per game. There are still times where his jumper is a flat tracer missile that clangs off the front of the rim, but his shot-arc has improved dramatically and he now boasts legitimate shooting chops, with enough juice off-movement and deep range to boot.
As the tentpole for Ohio State’s offense, he was situated at the top of the arc or in the post for the bulk of his possessions, meaning we didn’t get to see what he is like as a corner catch-and-shoot guy — that will have to change no matter who drafts him, especially if he is being asked to act as a pressure relief valve for Minnesota’s rim-pressuring stars. However, what he did from that top-of-the-arc sprinkles gold flecks of encouragement about his shooting projections.
There’s also plenty of damage to be inflicted from his favorited area. Assuming that Towns mixes in another hearty helping of elbow touches into his shot diet again next season, there will be room for Liddell to pinch-hit as a pick-and-pop shooter.
As you can see, the beauty of Liddell’s pick-and-pop prowess is that he doesn’t need to pivot out of the screen into a field of open hardwood in order to create a makeable look. If there isn’t an immediate passing option or a driving chasm opening up, he is able to hit his defender with a jab step or one-dribble-step-back to fire over an outstretched arm.
These looks wouldn’t be the foundation on which Minnesota builds its offense, but having a girthy screener who can come off those screens and hit tough pick-and-pop jumpers is an untapped dimension that would benefit the entire offense greatly — especially the mainstays in Edwards and Towns. It’s not hard to imagine some five-four pick-and-pops with Towns handling the ball and even easier to picture the space Edwards would be afforded when rifling downhill off a Liddell screen with Towns spacing in the corner.
Whilst Liddell being used as a corner or slot floor-stretcher or pick-and-pop gunner is a useful way to keep him involved in the offense while planting the seeds for Minnesota’s most accomplished scorers to split seams afterward, there is enough talent bubbling away to drip-feed actions into the mix where Liddell is the primary scoring option. There is no better example than this Horns Elbow action that Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann was fond of — much the same as the types Finch loves to call on.
Whether or not Liddell is going to make these tough looks consistently against better defenders — both athletically and mentally — and more well-versed scouting reports remains to be seen, but the fact that he already has a baseline for functioning within Horns actions and creating open looks (while others around him run decoy routes) means there is something there to shape and sculpt if he were to enter Minnesota’s Horns-heavy offense.
The burly Buckeye isn’t just a long-range shooter — he has a genuine penchant for face-up scoring out of the high post and he can even step into mid-range jumpers while moonlighting as a pick-and-roll ball-handler — but it’s likely he is going to make his name early on in his career as a deep-shot-making four. For the Wolves, when considering his motor and his brutalizing rim-protection, that feels like a dream — even if the long-term potential isn’t as wow-inducing as some other prospects.
Rotations and Rim-Protection
Connecting the dots between a 6-foot-7 power forward and a shot-blocking savant requires more mental gymnastics than seems feasibly possible. Against bruising NBA bigs and the myriad of guileful guards floating around the league, size is literally the biggest part of the rim-protecting battle.
It just doesn’t make sense. When you study the way Liddell prowled around the defensive halfcourt and impacted would-be scores at the rim, though, the image of a legitimate small-shot-swatter becomes a little clearer. The 21-year-old’s 2.59 blocks per game ranked 18th in the country this past season, and nobody 6-foot-7 or shorter registered more total blocks.
Liddell isn’t going to waltz into the league and put a lid on the rim, but there are some key contributors to believing he can be a legitimate shot-blocking presence at the next level. It starts with his positioning for those blocks. He isn’t defending in deep drop coverage and sending away shots after the offense has been funneled toward him and, oftentimes, he isn’t even one rotation away when he is protecting the rim. Instead, Liddell consistently shows supreme timing at zoning off his man on the perimeter and zooming in to make his defensive play.
There is certainly something to be said about how much more diligent he will have to be against NBA shooters and drive-and-kick passers, but Liddell reads the play exceptionally well and it’s rare to see him overcommit to a block that was never a chance of happening. As soon as his man moves into a position where he isn’t going to score or the player with the ball begins to rise into his shooting motion, Liddell swoops in like a bear plucking an unwitting salmon from a flowing stream.
Again, he isn’t going to camp in the lane and guard the rim like a towering statue, but he is an elite rotation rim-protector and loves to chase down helpless would-be scorers in transition and spike balls off the backboard. Does it solve all of Minnesota’s problems? Nope. It’s valuable, though, and that’s about all you can hope for in the back half of the first round of the draft.
He needs to do more than just block shots, though, we know that, and it’s hard to replicate Minnesota’s unusually aggressive pick-and-roll defensive scheme at the collegiate level. Said scheme dictates that the screener’s defender pushes up to and beyond the level of the pick. It’s simply not the way that college teams defend and there are very few bigs being asked to move their feet and contain ball-handlers, making it difficult to try and extrapolate film into potential realities.
However, Liddell has shown the capacity to move his feet in other ways, perhaps giving some confidence to Minnesota’s front office brass that he could compete in their pick-and-roll defensive system.
Chris Finch and his coaching staff experimented with more switching and less two-on-the-ball defensive coverages throughout the middle of the season, but it spectacularly crashed and horrifically burnt and they quickly reverted back to their base defense. They organization, among other things, need to find players who can help push their defensive schemes to new heights.
Liddell isn’t going to be the one who comes in and changes that fortune — he still has stretches where he overcommits on closeouts and he doesn’t have the footspeed to catch up on those kinds of mistakes — but as you can see by his shackling defense above, he does have the ability to move his feet in space and guard smaller players if he starts the possession in front.
Adding another at least semi-switchable defender (especially one who can protect the rim ferociously) will only aid Minnesota’s quest to become a more versatile and deep defensive unit.
E.J. Liddell’s defensive is enigmatic. A small shot-blocker who covers space sneaky-good and flashes switching potential. Enigmatic. His whole damn game is enigmatic. Perhaps the Wolves want sizzling potential or jaw-dropping physical attributes, but enigmatic wouldn’t be the worst result.