Prior to the class-concluding addition of four-star St. Louis (Mo.) Webster Groves point guard Courtney Ramey in late April, it was Cibolo Steele small forward Gerald Liddell who long served as the headliner of head coach Shaka Smart’s 2018 Texas Longhorns haul.
Once considered a five-star prospect ranked as high as No. 8 nationally prior to his junior campaign, Liddell fell more than 40 spots to his final ranking at No. 49 overall. But nevertheless, he still owns high regards as the No. 2 talent in Texas after earning TABC Class 6A All-State honors each of the previous two seasons, and understandably so. Although Liddell arguably fell a bit short of the expectations of his initial top 10 billing, he averaged 19.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per contest as a junior. By the time his final season at Cibolo Steele arrived, Liddell was a Longhorn, siding with Smart’s program over invitations from Kansas, Arizona, UCLA, Baylor, and Tennessee, among others.
In the months that followed, Liddell maintained his reputation as a versatile, do-it-all wing, averaging 16 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game en route to District 27-6A MVP honors. It was the icing atop a fairly illustrious high school career, in which Liddell led the Knights to 57 wins throughout the past two seasons, including in district title in 2018.
“I feel like I had a pretty solid high school career. It could have been better, of course, but just use that as fuel and motivation at the next level,” Liddell told Adam Zuvanich of the Express-News.
Now at the next level, Liddell should be afforded the time to find his fit and develop within a fairly deep backcourt.
Liddell is best described as a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of talent, which should work well as he eases into a rotation with plenty of talent and experience surrounding him.
A bit of a tweener, from both a size and skill set perspective, Liddell boasts ideal height for a wing a 6’8, but is listed at just 180 pounds. For comparison, fellow incoming freshman Ramey is listed at 6’4, 185 pounds. The good news to that end is Liddell owns a projectable frame, which could quite realistically add another 15-20 pounds by the time he’s required to step into a more significant role as a sophomore. In a similar sense, Liddell’s skill set has its fair share of development looming, but his versatility provides Smart and his staff with a considerably high-upside foundation with which to build upon.
“Gerald has actually been a real pleasant surprise so far. I knew he was a good player, but he’s got a little more stuff to him than I thought,” Smart said of Liddell impressing since arriving on campus.
As the standout star at Cibolo Steele, the load Liddell shouldered was likely greater than any he’ll inherit at Texas; at the least, not until his junior or senior seasons. It’s safe to say Liddell lived up to that workload commendably, though. As a senior, he led the Knights in scoring, rebounding, and blocks, and finished second in assists. Whether it was slashing from the wing, attacking the offensive glass, orchestrating the offense and pushing the pace in transition, setting up shop in the mid range, or pulling up for the occasional three, he was everywhere offensively throughout the course of a single game. On the other end of the floor, Liddell’s length — he owns a 7’0 wingspan — provided plenty of defensive versatility and allowed him to, more times than not, prove to be the most dominant rebounder on the court.
Now at Texas, that Swiss Army knife skill set will be utilized, although to a much lesser degree early on, and maybe not in a notable capacity until his second season on the Forty Acres.
“Gerald possesses great versatility,” Smart said. “He’s an excellent rebounder, can handle the ball and has a knack to score and create for others. Gerald’s feel and basketball IQ will allow him to play multiple positions. He comes from a great basketball background and will grow tremendously at UT as he adapts to the physicality of the college level.”
How exactly can Liddell fit into and complement a wing rotation — Andrew Jones and Ramey excluded — that features 194 games of experience with 136 starts?
With the Longhorns starting backcourt seemingly set with Matt Coleman running alongside Kerwin Roach II, and likely Elijah Mitrou-Long, and that cast having support in the form of Ramey, Jase Febres, and potentially a healthy Jones, Liddell won’t be thrown into the fire as a freshman. He’ll see his fair share of playing time at the front end of the season, but whether or not Liddell can remain in the rotation once Big 12 play begins and the competition level increases will largely be dependent upon just how much progress he makes physically and from the perimeter between now and November.
As is, minutes may be fairly limited, but Liddell could make himself most valuable by blossoming into a reliable option from the perimeter. Liddell has a smooth shooting form and release and can connect on shots when his feet are set, but that range has generally been limited to inside the arc. Last season, Liddell attempted just 50 threes in 35 games and connected on only 15 of those looks (30%).
Elsewhere, though, there’s much to like about what Liddell brings to the table as a two-way prospect. He’s an explosive and crafty finisher when attacking the basket, excels in transition, and bearing in mind that he’ll never be the first or second option offensively next season, the fact that he’s an excellent rebounder who snagged 100 offensive boards last season could provide especially valuable in what will often be a small-ball lineup.
If Liddell can flash enough promise from the perimeter or enough polish on his stronger qualities, there is potentially some additional playing time to be had, although that may largely be based on the health of Jones and whether or not Febres can improve upon a relatively lackluster debut season in which he averaged just 3.4 points per contest.
If Liddell’s limitations from the perimeter lock him to the bench for extended periods, the reality that his skill set is more closely related to that of a stretch forward could potentially buy him brief stints as a small-ball four. But again, that will be dependent upon his progression physically, the performance of those around him, and at times, the opposition.
For example, the Longhorns forwards, and even centers have spent plenty of time operating from the perimeter under Smart, and offensively, Liddell could successfully do the same. He isn’t much of a perimeter threat, but he has some flash as a ball handler and can utilize his quickness to create mismatches before capitalizing once he’s in his comfort zone inside the ark, or create for others.
The issue, however, is that although Liddell has impressive length at 6’8 with a 7’0 wingspan, he’s just 180 pounds. By comparison, Kevin Durant was listed at 6’9, 204 when he arrived on the Forty Acres. While this wouldn’t be too much of an issue against guard-heavy lineups, especially considering Liddell will likely begin the season around 190 pounds, it often won’t be the most advantageous defensive option with Dylan Osetkowski, Kamaka Hepa, and Royce Hamm all available at power forward.
Liddell may very well boast the highest ceiling of any newcomer, but that peak won’t be put on full display for another season or two. Given his versatility, length, and skill set, Liddell has NBA upside, but he’s also a bit underdeveloped in key qualities that could find him meaningful minutes in a deep and experienced rotation next season. Throughout the periods Liddell does see the floor as a freshman — probably 10-12 minutes per game — he’ll likely provide flashes of that NBA upside and the potential to become a true difference-maker as a sophomore or junior. In the meantime, Liddell should be afforded the time to develop while getting his feet wet at a much more physical level.