BELLEVILLE, Ill. — If you saw an E.J. Liddell high school dunk in person, you probably didn't forget it. Those rim-rocking dunks will be coming to an NBA arena soon, with the Belleville native projected to be a first-round pick in Thursday's draft.
For those who can say they saw Liddell early on in his Belleville West days, it was easy to see his unlimited potential.
"The first time he played at Belleville West as a freshman I think he had like 20 points and 14 or 15 rebounds in a summer league game," Belleville West Athletic Director and Liddell's high school coach Joe Muniz said. "And I walked out of there saying, 'This kid's special'. And he went on to do some special things here at Belleville West."
The 6-7, 240-pound forward is projected to be a mid- to late-round pick in the first round, but now he knows there's nothing left to do but wait and see where his basketball journey takes him.
"I don't know where I'm gonna end up in two days. I don't know what city I'm gonna end up by next week, but honestly, it's all in God's hands now. I've done everything I can and I'm just letting him take care of all of it," Liddell said.
One thing that is for sure is that Liddell will never forget where he came from. The Belleville native and two-time state champion with the Maroons is proud of his ability to play for everyone back home cheering him on.
"I rep the 618 proudly. I feel like everybody knows where I'm from," Liddell said. "I mean they may not know the city, but I let everyone in the nation know where I'm from. Belleville, Illinois. Just me, having Belleville on my side and not the St. Louis area, I mean I'm from the Metro East and I know guys over there are gonna support me as well, but just being from Belleville means a lot, honestly. It just shows my humble beginnings and shows I've always had that underdog mentality."
"Belleville is where he's born and raised," Muniz said. "That's the type of kid he is. He hasn't forgotten his hometown, he hasn't forgotten his school, he's not forgotten his friends who helped get him to this point."
Liddell tested the NBA waters after his sophomore year at Ohio State but ultimately decided to return for his junior season.
He took the feedback he got from testing those waters to better his game and make him a more attractive draft pick for this year.
For example, Liddell significantly upped his overall field goal percentage and his 3-point shooting from his sophomore to junior season and finished his college career as a two-time first team All-Big Ten selection. He knows the ability to shoot is going to be key to his NBA development.
"In high school, I didn't really have to shoot jump shots. I was taller than most people. I shot it sometimes when I felt like I needed to, but it's all about confidence really," He said. "That's just with every kid, truthfully. Everybody shoots different but mine came from confidence. My freshman year my confidence was kind of down and I came back my second year and kept getting more reps up. And when I started hitting, my confidence level kept going up. So that's what I've been working on, just my mindset, whenever I shoot it I think it's going in."
Liddell flew out to meet with 11 different teams as part of the pre-draft process and has a pretty good idea of when his name might be called on Thursday night.
However, Liddell's favorite team growing up just happens to not have a draft pick this year.
"I'm a Lakers fan. Kobe Bryant is my favorite player of all time. My Twitter name is "2432" because of Kobe and Shaq, so the Lakers are my team," Liddell said.
Liddell credits a big part of his success to his family. And not just his family in his immediate household. It's been a whole team effort to help him get to this point.
"My whole family. Everybody in my family. My aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents... They've all meant so much to me. Always showing up to games, always supporting me even when I was a young kid just playing sports before I got to this stage. They just help me. They're my backbone. Just being able to lean on them whenever is really special to me. And I'm happy I can put myself in this position to represent the 618 but also the Liddell name," Liddell said.
"That's who he's been since day one. He's never wavered from that. I think his mom and dad, Michelle and Eric, have done an amazing job raising him to be the person that he is today. And that's why he's so special and has endured in everybody's hearts because of just the way he is and the way he goes about his business," Muniz said.
One of Liddell's biggest fans is his grandmother, who he said just can't pass up an opportunity to bring up her grandson in conversation.
"She's so excited. I don't think it's bragging, I just think it's her always being happy. No matter what conversation happens, she always brings me up. And just the fact that she's so proud. She's seen where I came from, she's seen me since I was a young boy and how humble I've been and done things the right way," Liddell said.
And while Thursday might be the moment Liddell realizes his dream, it's one not even he would have imagined as a young kid shooting hoops in the driveway.
When asked what 10-year-old E.J. might say about getting to play in the NBA, Liddell had this response:
"Get out of here," Liddell said with a laugh. "When I was younger I was a heavier-set kid. I could never see myself dunking, honestly. I always looked at the rim like, 'Wow that's super high', just watching highlights of people dunking and whatnot. I didn't know what was going to happen. I tried out tons and tons of different sports. But If I was to hear that back in the day I'd be like, 'No way'."
No matter which team takes a chance on Liddell, he had a simple message for that fan base. And it goes beyond the shooting percentages and Xs and Os.
"I'm full of heart. That's what I bring to the table. I've always had that underdog mentality just from where I'm from. Never had a big city name on my back, just humble beginnings. I have that heart because I play for more than myself. I play for people around here and I also play for my family," Liddell said.
And when that moment does finally come on Thursday, Liddell and those close to him know that while his life may never be the same, who he is as a person won't change.
"Tons of mixed emotions. I don't know till it happens honestly. I'm looking forward to it. I don't have a lot of stress on me right now, but some stress relieves off me knowing where I'm gonna be. That moment is gonna change my life forever," Liddell said.
"To see a kid be able to have these dreams and goals that you've been with since he was in seventh and eighth grade, to see him get to the ultimate goal is just special. It's a special feeling," Muniz said.