Amid all of the 17U action at the Nike EYBL stop in Indianapolis, a brief session of 16U games featured the "next guys up" on one of the premiere AAU circuits. That gave 2019 Belleville (IL) West power forward E.J. Liddell and his Brad Beal Elite teammates an opportunity to shine in front of several coaches.
Despite a bit of a slow start and an early run from an Illinois-based Meanstreets team, Brad Beal Elite turned on the juice as the game went on and came away victorious. And Liddell was a big part of that run, scoring 19 points in a well-rounded and productive effort.
"We like to play hard and do our thing," Liddell said of he and his teammates. "I feel like if I play hard, everyone else will play hard. That's my part as a leader. I was able to do that and we got after it."
Liddell loves to set the tone with his high-motor play. He knows that a lot of his teammates look to him, and he wants to give effort regardless of his production.
"Not all of your shots are going to fall," Liddell said, "but if you just continue to play hard, it will come to you. Sometimes I'll start off slow, but my game will come to me after a while and I can get hot."
A lot of players will tune out on the defensive end when their offensive game isn't clicking, but Liddell is the exact opposite. He wants to set the tone with his defensive intensity, and he knows it can fuel his offensive production.
"It all starts for me on defense," he said. "I feel like when I play hard on defense, I can do well on both ends of the floor. When I do that, that's when my game really gets going."
Liddell can score the basketball, but more than that, he wants to win games. So even though he can get 20 a game consistently, he helps himself by also feeding his teammates and getting them quality looks.
"I'm not selfish at all," Liddell said. "I like to pass the ball to my teammates. I have confidence in all of my teammates. My teammates are all really good. I like dishing it off to my teammates, and they like giving it to me."
One of the most noticeable differences in Liddell this spring is that his physique and conditioning have substantially improved. Now more athletic, Liddell has become far more of a matchup problem for opponents.
"That has helped me SO much," he emphasized. "My leaping ability has gotten better. I've been in the gym more. I've been in the weight room. I'm not where I want to be yet, but I've improved a lot in that area. I've been working on my mid-range game and my ball handling a lot. My turnaround jump shot has come a long way."
Liddell has a few offers already, including one from the Illini. He has a feeling that another Big Ten school may be jumping in with an offer soon, too.
"DePaul, SLU, SIU Carbondale, and Kansas State have offered," he said. "I think Iowa is pretty close to offering me. I have interest from a lot of other schools, though."
As previously mentioned, the Metro East area is one that is growing increasingly talented, and Liddell is one of several players who wants to continue to improve the reputation of basketball in his territory.
"Chicago is a really good area, and is an area where a lot of stars have come from," he acknowledge, "but I feel like where we come from in the Metro East area, we have a lot of good players down there and we do our thing, too. We're going to keep putting that place on the map."
Liddell's strong play has earned him an offer from the Illinois staff already, and he has had some contact with the new coaches. Liddell admitted that the style of play was appealing to him.
"I've talked to them a bit," he said. "I haven't talked to Coach Underwood much though. He came to open gym, but I didn't get a chance to talk to him since I had practice. He seems like a cool guy, and I really like the way his offense plays."
But Liddell sees a lot of promise in the Illinois program moving forward. One big reason for that is the buy-in of a player like Illinois Mr. Basketball and recent Illini commit Mark Smith.
"I think the program's headed up," he said. "Mark Smith is my guy. I'm happy he committed there. I love the campus. I love the vibe there. I just love the coaching staff in general. Mark's commitment changes the opinion of Illinois (among Metro East players) a lot. I know that Mark Smith is a really good player and is going to go where he thinks he can help the team out and put the program back on top."