Facing a double-team, E.J. Liddell took one dribble, rose over two defenders and finished a two-hand jam.
A few plays earlier, he picked up a steal and broke away for a dunk. And in the first half, he blocked a shot so hard in front of his team’s bench that his teammates almost had to duck.
“I can dribble, I can shoot, I’ve worked a lot on my ball handling so I can shoot off the dribble,” said Liddell, a 6-foot-7 junior forward for Belleville West after his team’s victory over Edwardsville last month. “On the defensive end, I feel like I can guard any position.”
It doesn’t take much to see why Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff have made Liddell their top target in a 2019 recruiting class that features a lot of talent in St. Louis and Kansas City.
While Martin has already helped Missouri get a few St. Louis-area prospects, Liddell could be the recruit who opens the floodgates for the Tigers in that area if he winds up signing with Mizzou.
Liddell averaged 17.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a freshman and took off his sophomore season. Liddell’s numbers increased to 19.6 points and 7.4 rebounds a game — and he established himself as a shotblocker.
He swatted 100 shots as a sophomore, five more than Missouri freshman center Jeremiah Tilmon during his senior season at East St. Louis. Through 22 games this season, Liddell has already blocked 132 shots, shattering his previous season-high.
Belleville West coach Joe Muniz said he’s never had a player like Liddell, who understands the fundamentals of blocking shots a such a young age. Muniz said the next step for Liddell is keeping blocked shots inbounds, or deflecting them to a teammate.
“Some kids can get high, he can just go that next level and go even higher,” Muniz said. “He always had great leaping ability.”
Liddell’s height has made him tough to project as a college player. He is too short to be a power forward or center, and he doesn’t have the skillset of a wing.
But doing more with less is a Liddell family trait.
As a 6-foot-7 offensive lineman at Illinois State in the late 1980s, Liddell’s father played all five spots on a Redbirds line that lacked depth. It was at Illinois State where Eric Liddell met his wife, Michelle Rucker, who was a volleyball standout.
Rucker was a 5-foot-10 middle blocker for the Redbirds in the early 1990s at a position where most players were about 5 inches taller. Rucker led the Redbirds to the NCAA Sweet 16 and finished fifth in the nation in hitting percentage, giving her the last laugh. She jokes that her son’s vertical comes from her side of the family.
“Off the court I’m a nice guy, but on the court I really want to win and feel like I have to be aggressive,” E.J. Liddell said. “I have to have that dog mentality when I play.”
Liddell said he’s just as likely to get frustrated over a game of Uno with his family as he is for a missed shot or a bad pass.
On the court he’s locked in for all 32 minutes and isn’t afraid to use his physicality on both ends of the court, whether it’s on a tough shot or a jump ball.
Against Edwardsville, Liddell blocked another shot that went right back into the opponent’s hands. Rather than celebrate or show emotion, Liddell’s eyes never left the player he was guarding.
“He plays with extreme intensity,” said Eric Bossi, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “He is mean and nasty out there. He takes no prisoners.”
After watching Liddell play in December, Bossi bumped the forward’s national ranking from the mid-90s to the low-40s. Ohio State recently gave Liddell his 13th scholarship offer.
Illinois, along with Kansas State, has been after Liddell since his freshman year, when they first offered him a scholarship. And shortly after Missouri hired Martin in April, the Tigers offered Liddell and have been in constant contact.
Martin and assistant coach Chris Hollender have been regulars at Liddell’s games and text him whenever the recruiting calendar allows it. Hollender cracks him up with a funny video or joke whenever he checks in with Liddell.
As for Martin, he sends Liddell motivational passages that he regularly reads, and Liddell said Martin has told him he could be a positionless player in Missouri’s system
“He tells me how it is,” Liddell said of Martin. “He’s truthful. He cares about the person and where they get in life.”
Liddell’s parents both went through the recruiting process as a teenagers but want their son to make his own decision.
“They just tell me enjoy it while it’s still here because one day I have to pick a school,” Liddell said. “My parents are helping me with everything. If I really like a school or they really like a school, we’ll talk about it.”
Martin’s reputation around St. Louis has helped change the local perception of Missouri’s program after a tough three years under Kim Anderson. Eric Liddell grew up with Martin in East St. Louis and has known him for years.
Missouri has recently missed on top-ranked prospects from St. Louis, including NBA stars Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal and former Kansas standout Ben McLemore.
But in addition to Liddell, the Tigers are also recruiting St. Louis guard Mario McKinney for 2019, whose cousin Jimmy played for the Tigers in the early 2000s. McKinney and Liddell are lifelong friends and landing one could help with the other.
For now, Liddell is more concerned with improving his ball handling than picking a school, but it appears Missouri and Illinois will be in it until the end because they’ve made him such a high priority.
Javon Pickett, a Missouri signee for the 2018 class and fellow Belleville native said he thinks if Martin can get Liddell on board, other prospects will follow his lead.
“It would be a great addition,” Pickett said. “I feel like that would bring in more talent from around here. There’s a few good players from around his age in St. Louis. If he does it, they’ll do it.”