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Holtmann says Liddell will no longer play center, talks NBA feedback

No more matchups with opposing center for E.J. Liddell this season, says head coach Chris Holtmann.
No more matchups with opposing center for E.J. Liddell this season, says head coach Chris Holtmann. (© Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports)

COLUMBUS, Ohio –– Listed on the Ohio State roster at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, E.J. Liddell’s physical attributes and athleticism give him multi-positional versatility. Given his game and build though, it would be hard to argue against the notion that Liddell is best suited for the power forward position –– at the college level, anyway.

However, with Zed Key learning on the job as a true freshman last year, Kyle Young sitting out for stretches with injury and neither one truly being Big Ten centers themselves, Liddell often banged around with opposing fives as a sophomore.

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That will no longer be the case in 2021-22, as Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said Tuesday at a press conference that his returning first-team All-Big Ten performer will play solely at the four spot this year, and detailed the advice Liddell received from NBA scouts over the summer.

“He’s gonna be almost exclusively at the four, and we’ve said that really since the end of the season,” Holtmann said. “That that has been our intent all along.”

The ability for Liddell to do so will be buoyed by the offseason addition of Indiana transfer Joey Brunk, a 6-foot-11 center, and the continued physical maturation of Key, who Holtmann said will see a significant uptick in playing time down low this season.

“One of the things that I think people have maybe forgotten a little bit about is Zed Key had a really good freshman year. He is a big guy. He’s maybe not quite as tall, but he’s a big guy and got great length, plays with great length, plays much bigger than he is,” Holtmann said. “So we always assumed that Zed was going to play more minutes as he moves forward in his career, obviously. So moving E.J., I think it’s best. At the end of the day, it’s best for E.J., it’s best for his development.”

After averaging 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season, good for second and first-best on the team, respectively, Liddell declared for the NBA Draft and played in the G League Elite Camp in front of pro scouts in Chicago.

Aside from Brunk and company making it more feasible to keep Liddell at power forward, Holtmann said the move will allow the Illinois native to address the feedback from NBA scouts who called for more defensive versatility from Liddell –– who often guarded taller, slower centers last season.

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“The two things they hit on the most was consistent shooting, defensive versatility,” Holtmann said. “The ball-handling piece was kind of third in their mind, at least from the people we talked to. So I think that’s an important skill for him to continue to grow in and improve in, but the other two areas –– I think for his development –– are most important, and most of the NBA teams we talked about.”

On the offensive end though, Holtmann thinks Liddell may have to make an adjustment to account for the fact that he will no longer be guarded by Big Ten centers.

“It’s one of the things last year he really, really benefitted from, because I think he had an advantage going into almost every game,” Holtmann said. “He just was an impossible guard. I think he’s gonna be hard to guard again, but you’re putting him out there with Zed and Joey, he’s gonna be guarded by a more mobile guy. I think the challenge will be, when he’s out there with Kyle, how are they gonna match up. That could be something we look at.”

No matter where he’s at on the court though, big things will be expected from Liddell in 2021-22. With Duane Washington departing from the program following an impressive NBA Combine run, Liddell will be the team’s No. 1 option on offense, and his return makes him just the sixth Buckeye in the past 40 years to come back after being named first-team all-conference the year prior.

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