It took a little white lie for E.J. Liddell to get through the conversation with D.J. Carton.
Ohio State was 169 seconds into its 2019-20 season and trailing 5-0 at the first media timeout against Cincinnati on Nov. 6 when Liddell got the call to make his debut in place of junior Kyle Young. During the huddle, Liddell listened to the plan and did his best to process his job when his fellow freshman, who had already been inserted into the game, asked him a question he wasn’t ready to answer honestly.
“D.J. asked if I was nervous as soon as we sat down on the bench,” Liddell said. “I was like, ‘No,’ but in my head I was pretty amped up to get out there and play. I felt like everything was moving so fast and I really needed to take a deep breath and slow down.”
That process would take some time. Liddell would miss his first field goal, a forced layup, and then a three-pointer a moment later. Then he turned the ball over after Young rebounded that miss.
Seconds later, he was back on the bench.
“There were some rough moments there,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I think E.J.’s first 5-8 minutes were ones he’s going to reflect back on and laugh a little bit.”
A two-time Mr. Basketball in his native Illinois, Liddell led Belleville West to back-to-back state titles while playing himself into a national top-50 recruiting ranking. Arriving as a high-level post scorer, he arrived at Ohio State ready to assume a key role in Holtmann’s rotation only to be slowed by a preseason ankle injury suffered right before the start of camp. Liddell then spent three weeks in a walking boot before being cleared just a few weeks prior to the Cincinnati game. His conditioning remains a work in progress, he said, but Holtmann credited him for his efforts to make up for lost time.
In a glimpse of what could still be coming, Liddell’s debut didn’t end with a few rough minutes. As the Buckeyes endeavored to hold off a late Bearcats charge, what had been a nine-point second-half lead had been whittled down to two when Ohio State brought the ball up the floor with four minutes to play. Sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. got the ball to Liddell, who knocked down a jumper from inside the paint to push it back to a two-possession lead.
Cincinnati would get no closer than four points the rest of the way.
“It’s great because in that type of game coach trusted me to be in the game at that point in time and Duane gave me the ball in the right spot,” he said. “That was a big moment in the game and one of the best experiences I’ve had, so far.”
Someday, somewhere down the road, Liddell said he will revisit that debut. Maybe it’ll be in the midst of an NBA career, or one that has taken him across the globe. When he does, the 18-year-old version of Liddell knows how he will feel.
“I will look at myself and laugh, honestly, because I know how excited I could get and I will look at myself and be like, ‘Yeah, I needed to slow down a lot,’ ” he said with a laugh.