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Gerald Liddell finds his role for Texas on defense

A scorer in high school who didn’t know how to play hard, Liddell is transforming his body while proving in the NIT that he’s transformed his mindset, too.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Final Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

During the difficult days — and there were likely a lot of them — Courtney Ramey was there to help counsel fellow Texas Longhorns freshman Gerald Liddell.

A top-50 player out of high school and a USA basketball participant, Liddell had a difficult awakening when he got to Texas, according to head coach Shaka Smart.

“Until he got here, he never was really forced to play hard and so, if you’ve never really played hard, then once you go and play hard for five minutes, your body’s like, ‘What is this?’”

In fact, Liddell started experiencing back issues and other physical ailments once he arrived on campus and began to practice with the Longhorns. The physical process of learning to practice at a high level was so difficult that it significantly decreased the potential for playing time.

In the competition to get on the court, then, Liddell faced two challenges — learning what it meant to play hard and overcoming the physical results of doing so. As a player who was recruited as a smooth scorer out of high school, that wasn’t an easy task for him, mentally or physically. He was tasked with transforming his body and his entire approach to basketball.

Ramey was there to help when Liddell was dealing with the frustration of not playing and wondering what he could do about it.

“I just told him to stay with it, keep working, stay ready,” Ramey said. “When your number is called, if you impact the game, he’s going to keep playing you.”

After playing only 27 minutes during the regular season and scoring twice, Liddell did finally have his number called in the NIT with Jaxson Hayes out due to his knee injury.

Against a smaller opponent intent on spreading the floor, Liddell saw five minutes of playing time against South Dakota State, scoring the third basket of his career and collecting two offensive rebounds.

Following that effort, a matchup issue against Xavier presented an opportunity for Liddell — Texas didn’t have any other options with the ideal height and length to defend the best Musketeers player, 6’7, 233-pound Naji Marshall. Liddell stepped up, playing 10 solid minutes and focusing on his defense.

Colorado’s best player was another wing, 6’7, 217-pounder Tyler Bey. Once again, Liddell’s role grew with a career-high 17 minutes and his first career three-pointer.

“One thing that’s been impressive, our last two games, Xavier and tonight against Colorado, he’s guarded the other team’s best player and done a decent job standing up to them and playing with physicality,” Smart said.

In New York, Liddell played 11 minutes against TCU and 14 against Lipscomb, where he really started to show his offensive ability, particularly during a quick five-point stretch in the first half. After entering the game, Liddell drove into the lane and hit a floater in the paint, then nailed his second career basket from beyond the arc. He eventually turned the ball over twice and committed four fouls, but he also finished another drive when he recovered his own blocked shot and went up strong to convert around the rim.

Some growing pains, to be sure, but also some clear flashes of potential offensively.

“Offensively, he’s a lot better player than he’s probably comfortable showing right now, though he did make that three, which was nice,” Smart said after the Colorado game.

The irony, as Smart noted, is that Liddell was recruited as an offensive player, but didn’t see the floor until he was needed defensively and proved that he could make an impact with his length and athleticism.

So, entering the offseason, the coaching staff can point to that emerging identity — instead of telling Liddell what he could be defensively with his seven-foot wingspan, the Cibolo Steele product went out and proved it to himself, success created by and grounded in his growing maturity.

“I just waited my turn, he put some trust in me, and I just went out to play as hard as I can every possession,” Liddell said after the Colorado game.

Apart from the on-court success, what was most striking about Liddell’s approach to his freshman season was the extent to which he demonstrated his new identity and sounded like his coach.

“I feel like I’ve grown the most mentally,” Liddell said. “It was really tough being a top player in high school and not seeing the court much, but just knowing mentally, control what I can control and go out there and fight whenever I get the chance.”

At that point, he wasn’t worried about what will happen next season — he was simply focused on winning, the type of clear-mindedness that the entire team struggled with so often.

“I’m not really looking into the future like that next year,” he said. “I’m just going out and trying to fight every possession that I get a chance to and try to win. Whatever happens next year, happens next year.”

Consider Liddell’s experiences in the NIT extremely important. Instead of finishing the season frustrated and without any knowledge of how to positively impact a game defensively, Liddell is now entering the offseason with increased confidence and an understanding of how playing hard can produce results and earn him more playing time.

With another offseason in the strength and conditioning program, he can continue to add the strength necessary to compete with older and more mature players, recover more quickly from physical practices and games, and develop his role on the team.

Texas hasn’t had a true wing since Tevin Mack was dismissed from the team in early 2017, so there’s a clear niche that Liddell can carve out to keep the Longhorns from having to defend opposing players like Marshall and Bey with smaller guards. His effort on the offensive glass can help Texas gain more possessions. And his offense, the smooth game he showed in high school, will continue to become more apparent in games.