How much better can life get for EJ Liddell?
The 6-foot-7 Liddell:
▪ Led the Belleville West Maroons to the Class 4A basketball state championship.
▪ Was named a first-team all-state selection by The Associated Press and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
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▪ Received the Chicago Tribune's Mr. Basketball award.
▪ Earned the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois.
Predictably, Liddell also is the Belleville News-Democrat's Class 3A-4A Player of the Year for 2017-18. Liddell, who averaged 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the Maroons (32-2), was a unanimous selection in voting by large-school coaches.
"Our team had a goal to win the state championship, and that's what we did," Liddell said. "Our whole team bonded well and we worked hard in practice. Coach (Joe) Muniz told us at the beginning of the year that we were going to win, and we believed him."
Liddell said the reality of the championship, the first in 101 seasons of Maroons basketball, "hasn't kicked in fully yet," even though nearly three weeks have elapsed since a 60-56 overtime victory against Whitney Young clinched the title.
"I think it will kick in sometime this summer," he said.
Muniz, who was voted Coach of the Year by his peers, has settled nicely into life as a state champion. Discovering new ways to describe Liddell, however, is becoming more difficult.
"How many adjectives do you want to use to describe him?" Muniz said. "He was the leader of our team both in his play and his overall team mentality. His mentality of team first was on display all year, all of the time. The kids followed his suit. This award is another example of, No. 1, he did have a great individual year. But No. 2, all the awards we get as individuals are because of the success of this team. EJ realizes that."
Roadblock in the lane
Liddell was outstanding offensively, scoring in double figures in 33 of 34 games, including 25 points or more 11 times. He became the Maroons' career scoring leader with 1,759 points and their single-season scoring leader with 708 points.
Liddell shot 58 percent from the field (227 of 394), 79 percent from the free-throw line (227 of 288) and 35 percent from beyond the 3-point line (27 of 77).
Defensively, Liddell was a game-changer, not just as a rebounder, but particularly because of his shot-blocking ability. He blocked six or more shots in 19 games, his high being 13 against Belleville East. He had seven blocks in both games of the state tournament.
It's that part of his game that perhaps most satisfies Liddell.
"My defense helped me out a lot this year. It helped the whole team out," Liddell said. "I've always been a great shot-blocker, but I've been getting in the gym and jumping a lot higher. I've been working on my leaping ability — and everything."
Liddell's timing when blocking shots is unparallelled in the metro-east. Most of his blocks are clean, with no foul being called. It's an unteachable skill.
"My mom says I get it from her because of her volleyball skills," said Liddell, whose mother, Michelle, was a star volleyball player at Illinois State in the early-1990s. "She says it reminds her of spiking balls."
Teams were hesitant to attack the lane with Liddell in shot-blocking mode. Whitney Young relied almost exclusively on jump shots over penetration in the championship game. Previous opponents of the Maroons also were judicious about going inside.
"I love it, honestly," Liddell said. "It kills people's confidence and makes them want to start taking lower-percentage shots."
Liddell said his keys to shot-blocking are quickness and length. Liddell doesn't mind giving space to an opposing player because he knows he can rely on closing speed and a long wing span.
"I try to distance myself (from the offensive player)," said Liddell, which serves to bait the player to shoot. "I use my long arms to block a lot of shots. But even if I'm not blocking, I'm making them shoot a lower-percentage shot. I'm trying to change their shot in mid-air."
Muniz said Liddell is uncanny with "his ability to change a game offensively and defensively."
"And he does it in a way that's really hard to stop," Muniz said. "In the state-championship game, he goes out and gets four blocks in the second quarter and all of a sudden, the game is changed. No longer is Whitney Young able to get to the rim as comfortably as they once were. They're missing shots, we're getting the ball and scoring on the other end.
"We've never had a kid like EJ who can block shots like he can. He likes spiking the ball against the wall and spiking the ball out of bounds ... but we've talked to him about not blocking the ball so ferociously that it goes out of bounds. We want him to knock to one of our players or get control of it, because we get the ball then. Otherwise, (the opponent) just takes the ball out of bounds."
Becoming a leader
Despite being surrounded by other quality players like senior Malachi Smith — a transfer from Belleville East who has signed with Division I Wright State — Keith Randolph Jr. and Lawrence Brazil III, the Maroons were Liddell's team. He set the tone.
Having already been a starter as a freshman and sophomore, Liddell this season sought to elevate his leadership responsibilities following the graduation losses of Tyler Dancy, Dalton Fox and others from a team that finished 20-9 in 2016-17.
"I showed a lot of things I didn't do last year," Liddell said. "I controlled the team and became a leader. Everybody looked up to me as a leader on the team. I tried to step up last year, but we had a lot of seniors. This year, I really stepped up and that helped us win."
With Liddell in the starting lineup the last three years, West has gone 66-23 overall and 31-11 in the Southwestern Conference. The Maroons won all 14 league games this season — by an average margin of 26.1 points. West didn't lose to a team from Illinois all season. Its only losses were to Houston Math and Science and Chaminade.
"Our team never had a letdown game, a game where we played way below our ability level," Muniz said. "I thought we were as consistent a team as any team I've ever seen. You can tell that by how we beat people.
"EJ was the same way. Never did you see him dog it out there. Some games, he may not have had the points that everybody expected him to have, but he ended up having 10 rebounds or 12 blocks."
Muniz observed how the Maroons gravitated toward Liddell.
"A player of his caliber, one of the biggest attributes they can have is, 'What do they do for the other players on the team?'" Muniz said. "Some players are as great as him, but they're just great individual players. EJ is a special type of kid. He's a great player, but he makes everybody else around him even better. He raises their games with his confidence, with his ability. He's been like that since day one that he's been in our program. He's a winner. His confidence rubs off on other players."
13 and counting
Liddell has received scholarship offers from 13 Division I programs: Illinois, Missouri, Saint Louis University, Ohio State, Florida, Iowa, Iowa State, Marquette, DePaul, Kansas State, Illinois State, Northwestern and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
April will begin a busy stretch of time that could see Liddell's offers more than double in number. More elite programs like Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan could slide into the picture.
"I'm taking my time with all of them," Liddell said of his suitors. "I'm loving every bit of it."
Liddell does not have a timetable on making a decision. His focus is on getting in the gym to improve his game.
Liddell again is playing with Bradley Beal Elite, formerly the St. Louis Eagles, of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League. Among his teammates are St. Louis stars Mario McKinney (Vashon), Yuri Collins (St. Mary's), Keyyaun Batchman (Chaminade) and Joshua Wallace (CBC), as well as Francis Okoro (Normal West). The team won a tournament title over the weekend in Milwaukee.
Liddell knows there always is room to improve. His 27 3-pointers were a career-high, but he could sail past that number as his skills away from the basket continue to evolve. Defensively, too, he expects to become more mobile in the open court.
"I've just got to keep working on all aspects of my game," Liddell said. "I can't stop working at it just because I'm getting all these awards. I'm going to keep working at it. I'm going to have to expand my game for college."
Muniz said the court will level out for Liddell in two years.
"After next year, he's not going to be the biggest player on the floor. He's not going to be the best athlete on the floor," Muniz said. "EJ is going to have to continually get better at his craft, to where he can maybe walk into a college in two years and step right in and play at a high level — to where the learning curve isn't going to be as great as it is for some freshmen.
"EJ Liddell is a once-in-a-lifetime player for the Belleville West Maroons, but in college, they may have three or four guys on the team that are just like him. You have to get your game up to that standard."
One thing's for certain: Liddell will not get carried away with himself. Parents Eric and Michelle closely monitor his behavior and attitude.
"My parents tell me to stay humble," Liddell said. "I've been a humble person all my life. I've never showboated or anything. That's just my mentality. If I keep my head, it helps a lot."
Liddell is looking forward to his final season with the Maroons, too.
"I really do think we're going to repeat next year because all our guys were so excited about winning, and I'm pretty sure we're not going to stop working at our game," Liddell said. "Malachi and Curtis (Williams) were big pieces of the team, but the guys who were on the bench are really going to step up next year."
Belleville News-Democrat Class 3A-4A All-Area Boys Basketball
Player of the Year
EJ Liddell, Belleville West, jr.
Coach of the Year
Joe Muniz, Belleville West
Malachi Smith, Belleville West, sr.
Jack Marinko, Edwardsville, sr.
Terrence Hargrove Jr., East St. Louis, jr.
Jalen Hodge, O'Fallon, sr.
Jordan Holmes, Columbia, sr.
Kevin Caldwell, Alton, sr.
JaQuan Adams, Civic Memorial, sr.
Ray'Sean Taylor, Collinsville, so.
Sam LaPorta, Highland, jr.
Joe Reece, East St. Louis, sr.
(Players listed in alphabetical order)
Beau Barbour, Triad; Lawrence Brazil III, Belleville West; Luke Ervie, Freeburg; Isaiah Ervin, Alton Marquette; Emmit Gordon, Granite City; Sammy Green, Alton Marquette; Jake Hall, Alton Marquette; Tyler Joest, Central; Keith Randolph Jr., Belleville West; Elijah Rice, Cahokia; Richard Robinson, Cahokia; Malik Smith, Alton; Caleb Strohmeier, Edwardsville; Blake Weiss, Mascoutah.
Past Large-School Players of the Year
2017: Mark Smith, Edwardsville
2016: Jordan Goodwin, Althoff
2015: Jordan Goodwin, Althoff
2014: Shawn Roundtree, Edwardsville
2013: Malcolm Hill, Belleville East
2012: Malcolm Hill, Belleville East
2011: Roosevelt Jones, O'Fallon
2010: Roosevelt Jones, O'Fallon
2009: Will Triggs, Edwardsville
2008: Ruben Cotto, Alton
2007: Kavon Lacey, Alton
2006: Dustin Maguire, Edwardsville
2005: Nick Arth, Edwardsville
2004: Kevin Lisch, Althoff
2003: Kevin Lisch, Althoff; JB Jones, Belleville West
2002: Vernell Coates, Collinsville
2001: Ramon Kelly, Belleville West
2000: Darius Miles, East St. Louis
1999: Darius Miles, East St. Louis
1998: Jon Harris, Edwardsville
1997: Jim Dougherty, Edwardsville
1996: Roy King, Belleville West
1995: Cory Garcia, Collinsville