By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
It was the most surprising fall of NBA Draft night.
Even those draft experts who had their doubts about EJ Liddell couldn’t have seen it coming. The Ohio State product had been widely thought to be a first-round selection, yet he dropped all the way down to the New Orleans Pelicans at No. 41.
Just how surprising was this? Liddell never even worked out in New Orleans because he and his team didn’t think there was any shot that he would be available that deep into the draft.
“I was very surprised he fell that far,” said one scout when asked about Liddell. “Maybe teams just don’t buy him as a shooter and are still concerned about the lack of true position. He is tough, defends multiple spots and has a really high IQ. There’s no reason why Liddell can’t be a quintessential role player in the NBA.”
The 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward went back to school after testing the waters in 2021 and developed at the college level, raising his scoring to 19.4 points per game. Liddell went from being a 33% shooter from beyond the arc in 2021 to over 37% this past season, while also increasing his mark from the field to over 49%.
Liddell is 21, which may have turned some teams off, but he has developed his shot and has gotten stronger in the process to be ready for the transition to the NBA. He took feedback and made the most of it under Chris Holtmann in Columbus.
So, why the fall?
The issue revolves around uncertainty over what role Liddell can play in the NBA.
EJ Liddell’s defense helps keep Ohio State alive
EJ Liddell had three blocks to keep the Buckeyes alive in the first half of a game last season against Xavier.
He’s a bit of a tweener for his size, and while the idea of him being a small-ball five is out there, certain matchups could still be difficult for him to handle. He has a 7-foot wingspan and was a willing, capable defender in the Big Ten, handling different matchups and being able to switch on quicker guards as well.
On the offensive end, if we are going off his sample size at Ohio State, there’s absolutely reason to believe that Liddell can stretch the floor. According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, Liddell was the fifth-most efficient player in college basketball this past season. He took on being more of a four for the Buckeyes to try to develop his game and give them a different look offensively, and actually became a better offensive weapon. He won’t be mistaken for a ball-handler or passer, but the Pelicans aren’t drafting him to do those things.
For a New Orleans team that reached the postseason for the first time in four years and gave the Phoenix Suns a six-game series, a key area to address is defense.
“We didn’t think E.J. was going to be there at 41 at all,” said Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon on draft night. “For us, that was a huge get. To put up 2.5 blocks per game (this past season) at his size is amazing. He’s a physical player, a high-level competitor and a high-level man.”
The Pelicans are hoping to get a second-round steal for the second straight year after grabbing Herbert Jones at No. 35 in 2021. Jones ended up making the All-NBA Rookie Second Team.
“I’ve been proving people wrong my whole, entire life so this isn’t anything new,” said Liddell on draft night. “I’m going to keep doing that until the day I’m gone. I’m happy they (New Orleans) took a chance on me and I appreciate them for the opportunity.”
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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