With eye on legacy, E.J. Liddell describes return to Ohio State after NBA process

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
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.

Had he remained in the NBA draft process, E.J. Liddell knew there was a path for him to get to the NBA.

But by returning to Ohio State for a third year, the first-team all-Big Ten forward is betting that this path will lead to a more lengthy stay in the league.

“It was a pretty difficult decision,” Liddell said. “I had fun in the process and everything. Nobody in my family’s ever been that close to making it to the professional leagues like that. It’s not about just getting in the NBA, it’s about staying there, so I feel like coming back was my best chance for me to get there and stay there.”

'I'll come back next year and show people what I can be made of'

After blossoming into a star during his second season with the Buckeyes, when he averaged 16.2 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds, Liddell entered his name into the NBA draft process and received an invitation to the G League combine. There, as he attempted to prove to teams that he could play on the wing at the next level, he struggled during televised games that were heavily reliant on point guards and centers, often leaving Liddell hovering at the three-point line waiting for passes that seldom came.

When it was over, Liddell did not receive an invitation to the full NBA scouting combine. It was a tough experience for a player who said he entered the process not just to get feedback, but to prove he was ready for the next level.

“Players who play the right way, those things aren’t always the best,” he said. “I’m a team player. I’m not going to go out there and try to get 20. That’s not how it is for me. I play the right way, try to make the right pass and try to win.

“I was really going in there expecting a combine invite. I was there to work for that and didn’t feel like I got a fair chance, but its fine. I’ll come back this next year and show people what I can be made of.”

What Liddell learned from NBA draft process

While the decision to return is one Liddell said he feels will best help prepare him for the NBA, the opportunity to play in front of fans again after a year of empty arenas also played a factor. So, too, did the opportunity to profit on his name, image and likeness, although Liddell said that was secondary to trying to improve as a basketball player. The NBA feedback told Liddell he needs to improve his defense, show more versatility and raise his three-point shooting by “three or four” percentage points, he said.

Fans this year will see Liddell be “a lot more versatile, really,” he said. “I’ll show a lot more sides to my game, handling the ball, being able to guard my natural position. I’ve got Joey Brunk and Zed (Key), so it should be fun.”

Teammate Duane Washington Jr. did earn his NBA combine invitation and announced he would not return for a fourth season at Ohio State.

“We kept up with each other,” Liddell said. “He just felt like it was best for him, and I respect that. This is like an individual thing really. I appreciate Duane for everything that he’s done and helped me with and done for me. I can’t wait to watch what he’s gonna do.”

Sunday was a day of watching Buckeyes past and present for Liddell. First, he was at the Kingdom Summer League at Ohio Dominican University, where he saw frontcourt mate Zed Key put up 20 points and six rebounds in the first game of the afternoon. From there, he was headed to the Covelli Center at Ohio State, where alumni team Carmen’s Crew was playing in the second round of The Basketball Tournament.

Those guys continue to draw fans years after their times at Ohio State ended. That’s something Liddell said he aspires to.

“I want to be one of those names that Ohio State fans remember,” he said. “I couldn’t go out like I did this past year. That’s a terrible way for it to end. People remembering my name and (it) being up on the wall, everybody will remember E.J. That’s important to me.”

He’ll have his chance.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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