He's back: All-Big Ten forward E.J. Liddell to return to Ohio State

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell will look to improve on a season in which he averaged 16.2 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds.

At every level of organized basketball, E.J. Liddell has brought home at least one championship.

Now he’s taking another shot at bringing one to Ohio State. The first-team all-Big Ten forward announced Saturday that he would return to college for his junior year after withdrawing from the NBA draft process. His father, Eric, told The Dispatch that there was a key factor that went into his son’s decision.

“He said he wants to win a championship,” Eric Liddell said. “He said it that exact way: ‘Dad, I won a championship in elementary school, junior high, two in high school.’ He said he wants to win a championship in college. I believe in him, because everything he’s said he wanted to do, he did it.”

Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell earned first-team all-conference honors during his sophomore season.

Liddell was first-team all-Big Ten last season

After breaking out as a sophomore and averaging 16.2 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds, Liddell became Ohio State’s first, first-team all-league pick since Keita Bates-Diop was the 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year. He’s the first to earn first-team honors and return for another year since Aaron Craft did so as a junior in 2013 alongside teammate Deshaun Thomas, who did not return for a senior year.

Once he declared for the draft while keeping his eligibility open, Liddell earned workouts with Boston, Philadelphia and Houston, had an online interview with another team and also participated in the NBA G League Elite Camp alongside Ohio State teammate Duane Washington Jr. Washington earned a callup to the NBA combine and, after performing well there, announced Monday that he will not return to the Buckeyes for his senior season.

Liddell's return will help Ohio State's preseason ranking

News of Washington's departure dropped Ohio State from a top-five team in most preseason media polls to a top-20 ranking, and they threatened to fall out of the top 25 entirely should Liddell have stayed in the draft. Players have until July 7 to withdraw from the draft and retain their eligibility, meaning the Ohio State coaching staff no longer has to guess what its team might look like for the 2021-22 season after nearly three months of uncertainty.

Throughout, Liddell’s status was unknown and he was viewed as being 50-50 on whether he would return or pursue the professional route.

“I love E.J. and love coaching him,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “This is no question this is an important day for our program. Most importantly, however, E.J. and his family thoroughly went through this NBA draft process and determined that returning to Ohio State for his junior year was in his best interest. I really appreciated how honest and open they were through this process.

“We are excited to get back to work with him and our team now that we have a better understanding of what our roster will look like.”

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Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell has won championships in elementary school, junior high and two in high school. He now wants to win a title with Ohio State.

“It was a big decision”

Since the 2014-15 season, 20 first-team Big Ten players have had the option to return for at least one more season. Of those 20, 12 opted to remain in college basketball, nine of whom either helped their teams to a better win total or a deeper postseason run.

“It was a big decision,” Eric Liddell said. “It could’ve went one way or the other, but he loves Ohio State. I’ll tell you that. He was leaning one way, then he’d lean another way.”

E.J. Liddell spent most of last week in Columbus, where the men’s basketball program hosted an alumni week that was featured prominently on social media. Photos of Jared Sullinger, D’Angelo Russell, Evan Turner, Jon Diebler, Aaron Craft and others showed them working with current players, and Liddell’s father said his son spoke with multiple guys there about his next step.

“He told me he was speaking with some of those people,” his dad said. “I would think they helped him with his decision.”

His return likely means the Buckeyes, who do have an open roster spot after losing Washington, will not pursue any replacement options via the transfer market. Liddell will primarily play as a power forward this season and spend more time on the perimeter, where he would likely play at the next level.