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Men’s Basketball: ‘God’s plan’: Liddell embraces journey, wait toward NBA draft dream

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Junior forward E.J. Liddell bows his head as his mother, Michelle Liddell, sits next to him at St. Clair Country Club in Belleville, Illinois, during the 2022 NBA draft Thursday. Credit: Gabe Burggraf | Assistant LTV Sports Producer

With childhood memories and framed photos filling the room, E.J. Liddell bowed his head and took in the emotion as he realized he was going to the NBA.

As the 2022 NBA draft entered the second round Thursday, Liddell’s anticipation vanished with the No. 41 overall and 11th pick in the second round when the New Orleans Pelicans selected the junior forward. His lifelong dream came true in a room full of over 100 friends and family members who erupted into cheers inside St. Clair Country Club in his hometown in Belleville, Illinois.

“It’s awesome. I’ve been dreaming about this for a long time,” Liddell said. “I’m going to keep getting better. That’s my thing. I get better. I improve. I work.”

Mocked and projected to get picked in the first round , the predictions didn’t quite come to fruition.

Liddell said it was tough waiting until the second round to finally hear his name called in the NBA draft, which is something he’ll keep in the back of his mind.

“It’s the word potential nowadays, I guess, but I mean, I know I did everything I could in my power,” Liddell said. “I went back to school. I worked. I got better. Continuing to pass up on me, that’s fine. I understand.”

The former Buckeye captain spent the last three seasons as an integral part of Ohio State, earning back-to-back selections to the First Team All-Big Ten. Liddell is one of 33 Buckeyes all-time to record over 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in his career.

Head coach Chris Holtmann was present at Liddell’s draft party Thursday alongside former Ohio State assistant and incoming Illinois State head coach Ryan Pedon.

Holtmann said Liddell will have “a lot of work ahead of him,” but thinks he’ll have a successful career in the NBA.

“He’s earned this moment,” Holtmann said. “It’s a really, really special night for him. I’m really, really proud of him and all the work he’s put in.”

His mother, Michelle Liddell, embraced him with hugs while his immediate family and guests cheered around them. Michelle Liddell said her husband, Eric Liddell, had to leave and not see the selection in person for an undisclosed reason, but they cherished how “special” the atmosphere became and know E.J. Liddell takes pride in where he came from.

“Obviously, a great moment to hear his name called,” Michelle Liddell said. “Of course, he wanted it to be called earlier, but it’s God’s plan. This is where he’s meant to be.”

E.J. Liddell is the first Buckeye selected by the New Orleans Pelicans in the franchise’s near-20 year history.

E.J. Liddell said he watched the Pelicans play the Phoenix Suns during last season and believes he can fit into the organization alongside veterans, such as Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and younger players like 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.

“They have a great young core. They’ve been working hard,” Liddell said. “I just see they got a lot of dogs on their team, so I can see myself with them.”

Among the guests at Thursday’s draft party was high school teammate and current Illinois sophomore defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr., who played on both state championship-winning teams with E.J. Liddell at Belleville West High School.

He saw E.J. Liddell develop and grow into the work ethic he has today, saying he’s known his former high school teammate since fifth grade. Randolph said watching E.J. Liddell get drafted in front of their community “means the world.”

“Nobody knows how hard he actually works, like how much work he puts in behind closed doors,” Randolph said. “He deserves every bit of this.”

E.J. Liddell wasn’t the only Buckeye who made the jump to the professional ranks Thursday.

He and teammate freshman guard Malaki Branham became the first Buckeye duo selected in the NBA draft since the trio of center Greg Oden and guards Mike Conley and Daequan Cook were chosen in 2007, as Branham went No. 20 overall to the San Antonio Spurs

“That’s awesome. I stood up for Malaki because I know how hard he worked for it, so I’m really happy,” Liddell said. “He’s in a great situation in San Antonio.”

Pedon, who coached both E.J. Liddell and Branham throughout the entirety of their careers at Ohio State, said the pair represent the program and themselves well.

“One of the things that I take from it is these are two wonderful families and two high-level, high-character people. We know they can play, but these are Buckeye guys,” Pedon said. “They exemplify everything that Ohio State has stood for and stands for on and off the floor.”

With his college career behind him and NBA opportunity ahead, E.J. Liddell said he’s ready to put his head down and continue to do what he’s always done.

“Definitely a humbling experience. I felt like I worked my hardest to get better this past year,” Liddell said. “It’s not about where you start — it’s about where you finish and I’ve always started from the bottom, so it’s nothing new. Nothing new at all.”

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