EJ Liddell is possibly the biggest mystery on the Pelicans’ roster heading into the 2022-23 season. The 41st pick in the 2022 NBA Draft suffered an ACL injury during his rookie Summer League, sidelining him for the entirety of his rookie year. That missed year of development hurts, but Liddell seems to be healthy now and his skillset built on weak-side rim protection could fill a major defensive gap in the Pelicans’ rotation.
Rim protection has been New Orleans’ most pertinent defensive weakness as their center rotation — Jonas Valanciunas, Jaxson Hayes, etc — has underwhelmed in that regard. Many of their quality defensive wings like Herb Jones, Dyson Daniels and Trey Murphy are more perimeter-oriented in their defensive strengths.
Insert EJ Liddell, a shot-blocking specialist who posted a staggering 6.4% block rate during his Ohio State career. Liddell is one of two players since 2008 drafted with a block rate above 6% at 6’7 or below, the other being KJ McDaniels. With a near seven foot wingspan, Liddell rotates promptly from the weak side as a helper, contesting at the rim and saving points. His great awareness, timing and vertical explosion help him combat his size deficit compared to most prolific paint defenders.
Honing in on a defensive role will bey key for Liddell to avoid the ‘tweener’ status. Defending wings and smaller forwards seems ideal for him but will Liddell have the quickness to guard down and will he have the strength and size to guard up? These are the defensive questions that will determine whether or not Liddell can slot in and impact winning on defense with his paint defense.
Offense, though, will be the main obstacle to playing time as it tends to be for many smaller college bigs. Liddell played a feature offensive role in college, scoring out of the post and on face ups often. He likely won’t play in those actions as much at the NBA level, so he’ll be carving a new niche out of shotmaking, finishing, passing and off-ball play.
The shooting profile is modest at best, (5.7 three point attempts per 100 possessions at 34.1%, 74.9% free throws) though the Pelicans’ track with shooting development provides some reason for optimism. The mid range scoring profile is elite as Liddell dominated the high post/short mid range area which is a promising indicator for expanding his jumper.
Dribble-handoff initiation and screening could be Liddell’s easiest offensive role somewhat similar to Larry Nance, handling into dhos and ball screens, rolling and finishing and scoring in the mid range. Attacking closeouts from the perimeter will be an important skill to develop as handle improvements could help him become a more dangerous perimeter attacker with his size and length.
As of now, Liddell’s place in the rotation is unknown. Given the Pelicans’ treasure trove of playable wings, can Liddell find a place in a thinner big man rotation? If he can find the floor, expect lots of weak side blocks and impactful rim defense.
Written by contributor Ben Pfeifer.
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