The thing about being the best player in the state, a top 50 player in the country, a state champ and the reigning Mr. Basketball award winner, is there is going to be intense interest in your recruiting prospects.
And with that interest come the rumors, “inside information” and “sources” during the recruiting process. There have been a few rumored “leaders” over the last several months for the most heavily recruited player in Illinois, Belleville West star EJ Liddell.
But if you take Liddell at his word, and if you listen to the coaching staffs that are recruiting him, you would be hard-pressed to believe that any rumor is true.
That’s because the close-to-the-vest Liddell insists he doesn’t have a leader.
When pressed about it in a one-on-one conversation and directly asked, without naming the actual leader, does he have a favorite in his head when he lays his head down at night, Liddell says in an easy-to-believe tone, “No, I really don’t.”
“I am just always thinking of the pros and the cons of each one,” says Liddell of his many college options. “And I’m really still having fun with the process.”
Liddell says that during warm-ups, before games started for his Bradley Beal club basketball team this July, he would still catch himself looking over at all the coaches who were settling in and getting ready to watch him.
“I was a chubby little kid who was considered more of a football player than a basketball player,” says Liddell. “I never even thought I would ever be a Division I basketball player. And to look over and see all those coaches there for me? To me that’s been the most fun part about the recruiting process, just knowing that the time put in and the hard work has paid off.”
So Liddell says he will continue to take his time in sorting out the long list of schools that are still actively recruiting him, though the four that continue to be talked about most prominently in the media –– you know, by those with “sources” –– are Illinois, Kansas State, Missouri and Ohio State.
“This is the only time in my life I will be going through this,” says Liddell. “Most of the coaches know their limits and most have respected that. But I am really not close to making a decision.”
He is close, however, to trimming his list. Liddell says he plans to cut his list soon after the Nike Skills Academy in California, Aug. 8-12. He also insists, at least right now, that he plans to take five official visits, so a top five should be forthcoming. A scheduled official visit to Ohio State has already been set for the first weekend in September.
What has been a constant is how Liddell and his family have handled the recruiting process. Time and time again a coaching staff has noted the enjoyment in recruiting the best player in Illinois.
“I’ve had coaches tell me, ‘This is the way it should always be,’ when they talk about the recruitment of EJ,” says Belleville West coach Joe Muniz.
There has been little to no drama surrounding the Liddell recruitment. The process hasn’t been a production as we’ve seen with so many other top recruits. The only theatrics have come from some of the fan bases of the schools involved.
But Liddell and his family have been a revelation of sorts in the world of high-stakes college basketball recruiting. And Liddell is humbled when told what is commonly said about his recruitment.
“I really feel like that’s an honor,” says Liddell when told of the compliment college coaches have given. “I just try to talk, communicate and be honest with coaches.”
Liddell is so engaging, mature and respectful –– and has talked so passionately to the coaches recruiting him –– he seems to make them all feel good about where they stand. It’s why there are schools outside of the aforementioned four –– Illinois, Kansas State, Missouri and Ohio State –– who believe they still have a shot.
You get the feeling it’s going to truly be a gut-wrenching experience for Liddell when he does have to eliminate schools from his list.
Muniz has had a front row seat in watching Liddell’s rise over the past three-plus years. He watched Liddell dominate on the floor and lead his team to a state championship. But he’s equally impressed in watching Liddell and his family handle the recruiting process.
“I don’t think you could ask for anyone to handle the situation better than how EJ and his family have handled it all,” says Muniz. “But when you see the type of people they are … This is a great kid with great parents to look up to and seek advice from. EJ has stayed humbled throughout the process. I couldn’t be more proud of how they’ve handled it.”
When Liddell does finally narrow his list down to a handful, he knows what he will be looking for in the final stages of the process. The key word Liddell kept coming back to was honesty.
While head coaches and their assistants are typically referred to as slick salesmen and saying and doing whatever it takes to lure a recruit, some are easier to see through than others. The majority of teenagers will have a difficult time deciphering it all. But you get the feeling EJ Liddell is the type of sharp, cognizant kid who can do just that.
“My number one thing is the honesty of the coach,” says Liddell. “I really need to have that relationship where I can trust the coach, an honest coach who doesn’t need to tell me what they think I want to hear. I want to believe in what they’re saying when we do have those heart-to-heart talks.”
Liddell wants to feel it when he hears them talk about how he fits within their team and program –– “both as a player and as a person,” Liddell says.
After the recruitment ends …
When this whole recruiting whirlwind ends for Liddell –– after he takes his official visits, commits to a school this fall and signs in November –– it all turns to what is most important to him: winning basketball games. Liddell is obsessed with winning.
For Liddell, with so many goals already attained and so much already accomplished, there are still so many carrots out there for this competitive, driven player. The 2018-2019 season will be one where he can set himself apart from so many great prep basketball players in Illinois, many who will not have accomplished what he has if he can repeat what he did this past season.
Simeon’s Jabari Parker is the only player in state history to win two Mr. Basketball awards; Liddell is the frontrunner to win it again after capturing the award as a junior last season.
The list of superstar players who have led their teams to back-to-back big school state championships is a short one. Names like Parker, Derrick Rose, Shaun Livingston, LaPhonso Ellis and Quinn Buckner come to mind. Liddell can add his name to that list.
He’s been an all-stater, state player of the year, state champion, a high-major recruit and among the top 50 players in the country. He’s already his school’s all-time leading scorer and is on pace to become one of only 22 players in state history to score 2,600-plus career points.
With a year to play, the résumé is already long and impressive, and he’s aware of the legacy he can leave.
“I’ve thought about it all,” says Liddell of what’s out there for him as a senior. “Winning back-to-back state championships is the most important thing, though. But I have to go do what I’m capable of doing, keep working and have fun doing it.”
Liddell always seems to be doing just that for his teammates and coach Joe Muniz. What seems to impress so many people when watching Liddell is the seriousness he takes each game he plays, no matter the time, place or opponent.
While Muniz will repeatedly call his star “the total package,” he also singles out what he finds to be his most impressive trait as a player.
“The most special thing about EJ as a player is that he doesn’t care about anything but his team winning,” says Muniz.
Throughout the month of June while playing with his Belleville West teammates in camps, shootouts and summer leagues, Muniz says Liddell was all about the business at hand and getting better. Muniz says Liddell never brought up his recruitment or the fanfare that has gone along with it. He didn’t discuss his national ranking, offers or awards he had gathered throughout his junior year.
“His will to win, his competitive nature is what sets him apart,” says Muniz. “He gets it. He’s a leader with the ability to get his teammates to play to the best of their abilities. Those are the things that opened my eyes early on and continue to today.”
And it’s why Belleville West will be one of the favorites to win another Class 4A state championship in March.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport