Minnesota could use A (EJ) Liddell’s assist at 4
With just over a month to go until the 2022 NBA Draft, Minnesota Timberwolves fans will have their attention focused on interim president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta. June 23 marks the date Gupta will get his first (and possibly only) attempt as Minnesota’s top draft-day decision-maker.
The Timberwolves are expected to be $68 million over the salary cap, which means they don’t have much financial flexibility. Therefore, their chances of making any meaningful moves are limited, barring a D’Angelo Russell trade. With the June 23 draft, Gupta, who notably developed ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine, will have to focus this summer on trading to select unproven prospects.
After the team’s playoff implosion, talk of Wolves drafting a 7-footer like Duke’s Mark Williams or Auburn’s Walker Kessler began circulating due to the team’s demand for a defensive rebound and rim protection. And with backup center Naz Reid virtually unplayable throughout the playoffs, it’s clear the Timberwolves are in desperate need of some extra help.
But Gupta’s best option to find a fit alongside Towns in the draft might not be a 7-footer.
Enter EJ Liddell. He is a third-year forward from Ohio State who was one of 15 college players nominated for the John R. Wooden Men’s Award. Standing at 6’7″, Liddell doesn’t look like a player who can rebound and modify shots to the next level. But with a strong frame and elite athleticism, Liddell is playing a lot bigger than it looks.
Averaging 19.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game during his junior season with the Buckeyes, scouts fell in love with how well-balanced and NBA-ready his game looks. The biggest blow to Liddell so far is his draft age. Already 21, the team that was lucky enough to draft him is unlikely to see any drastic improvement in his game. That could be why he should land somewhere between picks 18 and 28 in the most fictional drafts. But for Minnesota, a team that’s been vocal about finding players who fit the deadlines of their cornerstones, selecting a ready-to-play player close in age to Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels seems like a no-brainer for the front. team office.
Weighing in at 240 pounds, Liddell is an extremely strong player compared to other prospects, given his height. His immense strength allows Liddell to finish strong at the rim, especially when coming off short pick-and-roll action. A Jordan McLaughlin-Liddell pick-and-roll? Chef’s kiss. Liddell also proved to be a reliable shooter from deep, both in the catch-and-shoot and out of the dribble. Liddell is knocking down 37.4 percent of his 3.8 threes per game in college.
But it’s not his ability to help his team score the ball that makes him such a perfect fit for the Timberwolves. Instead, it’s his defense.
The league has already seen a huge shift in the way front offices build their team rosters over the past decade. Given the success of the Golden State Warriors in the mid-to-late 2010s, teams quickly tried to mirror Steve Kerr’s strategy of using 6’6″ Draymond Green at center to try and edge their opponents. Watch what the Boston Celtics do against the defending playoff champions! By having five players on the court who can score from inside and outside and play heavy defense, Boston now looks like it has a real shot at making the Finals in June.
Built from the mold of PJ Tucker and Grant Williams, Liddell is an undersized wing with a wingspan of nearly 7 feet, which has the ability to flip and hold multiple positions. With his defensive IQ, as well as a knack for sending shots to the glass, Liddell was one of the most feared shot blockers in all of college basketball this season, averaging 2.6 blocks per game. which ranked him 18th in all of Division I basketball! No, he probably won’t be able to jump straight in and block shots like Rudy Gobert does. Instead, his blocks come from his formidable assist side D in the form of chase blocks, which give off hints of LeBron James during his days in Miami!
Along with providing Minnesota with hard-hitting wing defense and shot blocking, drafting the 6’7 junior would also give the Timberwolves something most other prospects can’t: flexibility. With his great stature and ability to defend 3-5 positions, Chris Finch could use the Ohio State product in a variety of ways. Crucially, however, it gives the Timberwolves a viable option besides Jarred Vanderbilt to play 4, allowing both Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels to play their natural positions. And with three more picks in a center-laden draft class, Gupta will have plenty of opportunity to find his team of extra big bodies.
At his end-of-season press conference, Patrick Beverley was asked what he thought the team needed to turn everything on defense. His answer was simple but effective:
EJ Liddell could be that Minnesota Timberwolves player. It’s no secret that Wolves have been looking for an upgrade to the 4 for some time now. With his high floor and jack-of-all-trades game, Liddell is a seemingly perfect fit alongside Wolves’ roster as it is currently constructed. Unless a team with a higher draft order steals it, the only problem Gupta should have in choosing Liddell at 19 is helping him choose a new jersey number.