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'I've been proving people wrong my whole life': Belleville's Liddell using NBA Draft wait as motivation with Pelicans

“It’s not about where you start; it’s about where you finish. And I’ve always started at the bottom, so it’s nothing new— nothing new at all," Liddell said

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — From the moment he touched the court at Belleville West High School, it was easy to see E.J. Liddell had something special about him.

“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, and I walked out of there… (thinking) this kid’s special," former Belleville West head coach and current athletic director Joe Muniz said.

"Special" turned out to be putting it lightly.

Liddell became one of the best high school players in Illinois history, winning two state titles and taking the crown of "Illinois Mr. Basketball", twice.

His high school teammates still remember those days fondly.

“Well, I hooped a lot at Belleville West… Just carrying this guy (E.J.) to two state championships and now he’s about to go and get drafted. It’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s like I’ve put my kid right there and now he’s about to do big things," Liddell's high school teammate, lifelong friend and current University of Illinois football lineman Keith Randolph joked at Liddell's draft party.

The success continued at Ohio State, where in three years Liddell was named to the All-Big Ten First Team, twice.

On Thursday night, Liddell's family and friends gathered in his hometown of Belleville to watch him become an NBA player.

But the picks kept coming, and Liddell didn't hear his name. Projected as a first-round pick coming into the night, Liddell had to wait all the way until pick 41. That's where the New Orleans Pelicans decided to fulfill Liddell's dream.

And he'll be taking that draft day wait to New Orleans as motivation to prove himself again.

“I’ve been proving people wrong my whole entire life. So this isn’t anything new. It’s like I said, I’ve been proving people wrong my whole entire life, and I’m gonna keep doing that until that day I’m gone. I’m glad they took a chance on me, and I appreciate the opportunity," Liddell said Thursday night.

And everyone who showed up to wait by Liddell's side on Thursday night will be right there with him for the next part of his basketball journey, too.

“Words cannot express how proud I am of him. I just don’t know how to express it. I’m so happy for him and I know he’s gonna do his best as he’s worked so hard to get to this point," Liddell's grandmother Caroline Liddell said.

“It’s why you bet on a kid like this. Because he got better every year. He’s gonna get better every year he’s an NBA player. He’s only going to continue to grow as a player because of who he is as a person," Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said.

“If you guys knew just how hard he really worked behind closed doors. He deserves every bit of this. I’m so happy for him and what’s about to come for him," Randolph said.

Now, with the wait finally over, the work begins again. And Liddell is fired up to show what this kid from Belleville is capable of.

“It’s not about where you start it’s about where you finish. And I’ve always started at the bottom so it’s nothing new. Nothing new at all," Liddell said.

“I just know I’m gonna go into New Orleans and work my ass off.”

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