E.J. Liddell was told he was too heavy, too slow, undersized and probably not ready for the NBA. The Ohio State star was also told this was his moment to maximize. It would be best if he left college, some said.
Thanks to the agents and actors who make the NBA machine daunting (by design) to navigate, the messages to Liddell were as mixed as his feelings about going through the pre-draft process to begin with.
His college coach, Chris Holtmann, flew out to see him in Santa Barbara, California, in the spring of 2021 when Liddell was going through workouts and trying to determine if he was finished playing for Ohio State. Holtmann didn't press his best player, didn't try to sway his thinking one way or the other. A year ago, at 20 years old, Liddell heard that leaving because of his age would be a big reason — a positive factor — and one that would help him get drafted. The younger you are, the better you can be. Ageism has become a dominant element in draft evaluations.
"He also was a first team all-league guy [that] year, and there was a thought: What more can you do?" Holtmann told CBS Sports. "People told him, 'Hey, you're going to hurt your draft stock by coming back.' He heard that from some people. But he was able to parse what was true, what was reality and what was just … talk."
Realistically, Liddell was a fringe NBA pick one year ago. He was coming off a good sophomore season, one that ended in stunning disappointment with a loss in the first round to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts. The whispers about Liddell's then-teammate, Duane Washington, leaving OSU early to chase the NBA wound up being true. With Washington gone, Liddell's stay-or-go decision meant as much to Ohio State's 2021-22 prospects as nearly any other player who was debating leaving school.
For Liddell, it turned out to be hardly a tough decision at all. After an inconsistent showing at G League camp, he felt like he was a year away from being who he wanted to be as a college player and a pro prospect.
"If I stayed in I would have made a team and might have been drafted, might have been picked in the second round," Liddell told CBS Sports. "But I was told my shot wasn't the best, I needed to continue play better defense and be in a lot better shape. What made me decide to go back to school? I felt like I was settling if I left."
There's a twist on conventional thought. "Settling" meant leaving school. Most players would see it the opposite way. But Liddell isn't wired like most others.