I know Simeon’s Talen Horton-Tucker is the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year and Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu is the ballyhooed Illinois recruit.
I know Normal West’s Francis Okoro is the in-state junior ranked the highest nationally and is considered the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2019 by most everyone in Illinois.
But know this: Belleville West’s E.J. Liddell is the state’s best player.
Liddell has been the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s No. 1 ranked prospect in the junior class for quite some time. That’s no disrespect to Okoro, who everyone has ranked higher and is a terrific high-major prospect, but rather a simple evaluation in my eyes.
I tried to make a specific point of the foolishness of national rankings last summer and heading into this high school basketball season when Liddell was absent from those lists. For Liddell not to be a consensus top 50 player nationally –– or not even ranked among the top 100 nationally –– was one of the bigger ranking omissions I’ve seen in this state in a long time.
Thankfully, the national evaluators recently jumped Liddell up the rankings, with Rivals slotting him in at No. 42 in the class and 247Sports putting him at No. 52. That may still be a tad too low.
The recruitment of any player ranked where Liddell is ranked is and will be intense. But ask anyone around Liddell –– or anyone recruiting him –– and you realize it will be refreshing. That’s due to his genuine personality, big ‘ol smile he plays with and the down-to-earth way about him.
As far as on the court …
Liddell has been nothing but a production monster since entering high school. He was his sensational self in a super-sectional blowout win over West Aurora Tuesday night at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena. He scored 26 points, pulled down 13 rebounds and blocked four shots. But it’s how he does it, how efficient he is, how he goes about his business and scoring what I call “man-like” points and shots.
The 6-7 junior terrorizes opponents down low, using his big frame, great hands, nimble feet and soft touch around the rim to finish at will. He shows shooting range and more than workable form out to the three-point line. And for a player at his size and position, his mid-range game is unique and extremely effective.
From an offensive standpoint, he has an old school game to him that you love. His game reminds you of a cross between a smaller Wayman Tisdale and a less-athletic Xavier McDaniel (all the high school kids right now are like, “Who?!?!”)
And for a player his size –– Liddell may barely reach 6-7 –– he’s a freakishly gifted and scary shot-blocking force on the defensive end. His length and timing in altering and blocking shots –– he averages nearly six blocks a game –– has made Liddell the most impactful player in the state of Illinois when it comes to both ends of the floor.
Liddell is tenacious when finishing around the basket or snatching rebounds with those vice-grip hands.
Yes, his physical superiority will lessen at the next level. But in addition to the talent and skills already mentioned, there is the big-time motor and workmanlike approach while playing with a sense of enthusiasm.
This kid has that “It” factor, the player who commands a “presence” when they walk onto the floor; confident but not cocky.
While often overlooked, that “It” factor is one of the most sought after things in athletics, in recruiting, and it matters. Most recently, former Stevenson star Jalen Brunson, now leading Villanova as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, had the utmost “It” factor with his play, production, presence and authentic game.
Brunson wasn’t this and he wasn’t that, so said many people throughout his prep career when projecting him down the road. Liddell will get some similar questions as he’s not 6-8 or 6-9 and he’s not an otherworldly athlete.
But everything mentioned –– the motor and tenaciousness, the skill and the “It” factor –– all translates. And when you combine it all, it’s a lethal combination.
Unfortunately, high school basketball fans in Illinois outside of the southern part of the state haven’t had a chance to see him. Fortunately, that will change this weekend in Peoria.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport