Boys Basketball

The best player in the state of Illinois? It's Belleville West's EJ Liddell.

Belleville West’s EJ Liddell drives against Poplar Bluff’s Xander Martin during the 27th annual Highland Shootout at Highland High School.
Belleville West’s EJ Liddell drives against Poplar Bluff’s Xander Martin during the 27th annual Highland Shootout at Highland High School. For the News-Democrat

The ballot for Mr. Basketball in Illinois was released to the state's voting media Monday, less than 48 hours after the conclusion of the IHSA's original March Madness.

My completed ballot was sent back less than 30 minutes after I received it with a check mark next to Belleville West junior EJ Liddell's name.

I concede that my vote is rooted partially in the inherent bias that comes from seeing a player with regularity. But that's fair. Upstate voters barely knew who Liddell was before this weekend, even though he's the best player on the best team in Class 4A. Some of them will cast their vote for other quality players that they know best.

But Liddell's resume stands on its own merits.

He scored 708 points in 34 games, good for a 20.8 average and the school's single-season record. It also carried his career scoring total to 1,759 points, also a record at Belleville West. In addition, he pulled down 8.2 rebounds per game and was second on the team with 96 assists.

And remember, he still has another season ahead of him in maroon and white .

But what makes Liddell a special player is his shot blocking. I heard this said repeatedly last weekend in Peoria, from fans and media alike: "I've never seen anything like it."

He's not just a big body with long arms that plugs up the lane. This is a 6-foot-7, 228-pound beast with soft hands, easy motion and unreal touch and timing that reminds of you of a volleyball player at the net. It's not unusual at all to see Liddell block multiple shots in sequence, rejecting one then quickly resetting his feet against a second and third attempt.

It happened in a game at Belleville East in December. A Lancers' player took a midcourt steal on a fast break. Liddell chased him down from behind, punched the attempted layup off the backboard, then had the presence of mind to stick his landing, turn 180 degrees, reset his feet and block the follow-up shot from a trailing East player.

It was a three-block series in the state semifinal win Friday over Elgin Larkin that turned the game (BND photographer Jimmy Simmons caught it on video. Check it out at bnd.com.)

EJ Liddell blocks shots for Belleville West during the Maroons' state semifinal win over Elgin Larkin.

Liddell blocked a tournament-record seven shots in the championship game (to go with 17 points and 10 rebounds), even though he had picked up his fourth foul midway through the fourth quarter. Liddell, by the way, fouled out of a game just once all season.

This makes Liddell a hugely disruptive force on the floor, even in those rare events he's not scoring. The record book says he blocked 200 shots in 2017-18, an average of six per game. That's a crazy statistic, and maybe even a little stingy.

Liddell is the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year, a first-team All-State pick by both the AP and IBCA, MVP of both the Centralia and Washington tournaments, all-tournament at the Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East and has scholarship offers from 13 Division I programs.

Finally, I will add this: EJ Liddell is a good kid who is backed by a good family. The same can be said about all of his Belleville West teammates as well as countless other players across the state, from the superstars to role players on the bench.

This, of course, is not one of the stated criteria for Mr. Basketball in Illinois and is not a quality less-familiar voters are bound to recognize in Liddell. I'm moved to include it, though, because of what we most often see in the news when it comes to high school students today.

If you're one of those who can only associate this generation with school shootings and Tide Pods, you're suffering your own lack of familiarity and are operating on some really sad biases.

But I digress. This is supposed to be about my ballot for Mr. Basketball in Illinois.

And, for all the reasons above, my vote goes to EJ Liddell, Belleville West junior, and the best player in the state.

Todd Eschman is the sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at 618-239-2540.
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