With the 2022 NBA Draft just over a month away, fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves will have their attention focused on interim president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta. June 23 marks the date that Gupta will get his first (and possibly only) attempt as Minnesota’s lead decision-maker come draft day.
The Timberwolves are projected $68 million over the salary cap, meaning they don’t have much financial flexibility. Therefore, their chances of making significant moves are limited, barring a D’Angelo Russell trade. With the draft on June 23, Gupta, who notably developed ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine, will need to shift his focus this summer from trades to selecting unproven prospects.
Following the team’s playoff implosion, talks of the Wolves drafting a 7-footer like Duke’s Mark Williams or Auburn’s Walker Kessler began to circulate because of the team’s demand for defensive rebounding and rim protection. And with backup center Naz Reid being virtually unplayable throughout the playoffs, it’s clear that the Timberwolves are desperate for some additional help.
But Gupta’s best option at finding a fit alongside Towns in the draft might not be a 7-footer.
Enter E.J. Liddell. He’s a third-year power forward from Ohio State who was one of just 15 collegiate players nominated for the men’s John R. Wooden Award. Standing at 6’7″, Liddell doesn’t look like a player who can rebound and alter shots at the next level. But with a solid frame and elite athleticism, Liddell plays much larger than he appears.
Averaging 19.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game during his junior season with the Buckeyes, scouts have fallen in love with how seemingly well-rounded and NBA-ready his game is. The biggest knock on Liddell so far is his draft age. Already 21, it’s not likely that the team lucky enough to draft him sees any drastic improvement in his game. That could be the reason he’s slated to land somewhere between picks 18-28 in most mock drafts. But for Minnesota, a team that’s been vocal about finding players that match the timelines of their cornerstones, selecting a ready-to-go player near Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels‘ age seems like a no-brainer for the team’s front office.
Weighing in at 240 lbs., 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 a 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 off the dribble. Liddell knocks down 37.4% 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 tremendous shift in how front offices construct their teams’ rosters in the last decade. Given the Golden State Warriors’ success 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 outpace their opponents. Just look at what the Boston Celtics are doing against the defending champs in the playoffs! By having five players on the floor who can score from inside and out and play switch-heavy defense, Boston is now looking like they have a real shot at a Finals appearance come June.
Built from the mold of P.J. Tucker and Grant Williams, Liddell is an undersized wing with nearly a 7-foot wingspan, who has the ability to switch onto and defend multiple positions. With his defensive IQ, along with a knack for sending shots onto 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 18th in all of Division I basketball! No, he’s likely not going to be able to jump straight up and block shots as Rudy Gobert does. Instead, his blocks come from his tremendous help-side D in the form of chase-down blocks, which give off hints of LeBron James during his days in Miami!
Besides providing Minnesota with impactful wing defense and shot-blocking, drafting the 6’7 junior would also give the Timberwolves something that most other prospects can’t: flexibility. With his large stature and ability to defend positions 3-5, Chris Finch could use the Ohio State product in a variety of ways. But most importantly, it gives the Timberwolves a viable option besides Jarred Vanderbilt to play the 4, which in turn allows both Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels to play their natural positions. And owning three other picks in a draft class loaded with centers, Gupta will have ample opportunity to find his team some additional big bodies.
During his end-of-season press conference, Patrick Beverley was asked what he felt the team needed to switch everything on defense. His response was simple but effective:
E.J. Liddell could be that player for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s no secret that the Wolves have been looking for an upgrade at the 4 for some time now. With his high floor, jack-of-all-trades game, Liddell is a seemingly perfect fit alongside the Wolves roster as currently constructed. Unless a team with a higher in the draft order steals him away, the only problem Gupta should have picking Liddell at 19 is helping him pick a new jersey number.