TORONTO – When Melvin Ejim is done with basketball or basketball is done with Ejim, law school is in his future.
But over the next few weeks he’s putting together a case of a different sort, one for 30 NBA teams that is very special to him. You can call it the ‘Why you should draft Melvin Ejim’ case.
There’s plenty to like about Ejim the person and Ejim’s game.
He’s a mature 23-year-old coming off a solid senior season for the Iowa State Cyclones in which he was the Big 12 player of the year, an Academic All-American and a big reason why the Cyclones got all the way to the sweet 16 before losing to the eventual champs Connecticut.
Born and raised in Toronto but schooled in basketball in the U.S. since he was 15, Ejim has that ‘tweener’ label stuck on him. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Ejim is small by NBA standards for a power forward, which is where he played in college.
The concern — and it’s certainly not one of his — from outsiders is that he may not be quick enough to guard small forwards at the NBA level which is what he’s going to have to do to make the transition from the college game to the NBA game.
Ejim makes his case on the premise that he’s a basketball player first, last and always. Traditional positions in the NBA are becoming less important as teams try to gain an edge by going small or big depending on their roster makeup and taking advantage of the speed or size that alignment tweak brings them.
So instead of shying away from the label or rebutting it, Ejim is embracing it.
“I’m a small forward and I bring the versatility to be able to defend bigger guys,” Ejim said. “I have a strong body that can do a lot of things defensively and offensively I’m versatile. I can shoot the ball and I play inside and out. If you don’t consider those good things then I guess a tweener is a bad thing.”
But it’s not a bad thing at all. Tweeners have a more prominent role in the NBA today than they ever have before. Today’s NBA is all about versatility and being able to play whatever game you decide or sometimes whatever game a more atheltic opponent dictates.
“I have yet to have anyone say to me, ‘Yo, you’re a tweener. We don’t really do tweeners over here,’” Ejim said. “I’ve been getting a positive vibe (in interviews). And really it’s not even about being a tweener. It’s about being a player. If you’re somebody who can go out and play basketball on different levels and play different positions, you’re valuable. You are a good player. It’s not really tweener or (being a) big or a small. You’re just a good player. It is something that the NBA is heading towards. It is becoming something more of an asset than something that defines you as less of a player.”
Ejim is not a lock to be drafted, but he has certainly helped himself through the draft process. He had a strong workout at the combine in Chicago and in Toronto, his fourth of what he expects will be 12 or 13 workouts before draft night, he seems to have almost convinced the Raptors that he can indeed make the transition form college power forward to NBA small forward.
“I don’t want to call him a tweener because he is proving he can be a full-time three-man,” Raps director of scouting Don Tolzman said Wednesday. “He is trending toward being a proven player. Just the fact that he has played the four-spot in college, there are a lot of threes and wings in the NBA that were big men in college. It almost helps them get a better feel for the game than having to shift positions. Just because that was the position they played in college doesn’t mean that’s what they are.”
Tolzman though says there is still some proving left to be done.
“I think he has to prove he can defend that position more so than play it himself,” he said of the small forward spot. “I think that if he can laterally keep with wings at his size, he’s a physical enough player to where he can be a very good defender at his size on the perimeter.”
And whether it’s a factor for the Raptors or not, Ejim is also part of that growing wave of Canadians that are coming down the NCAA pipeline and forcing NBA teams to view them as viable draft options.
The days of a Steve Nash waving the flag almost by himself are long gone as the likes of Ejim, Thornhill’s Andrew Wiggins (who could become the second consecutive Canadian to be drafted first overall), Brampton’s Tyler Ennis, Montreal’s Khem Birch, fellow Torontonian Dwight Powell and Mississauga’s Nik Stauskas as well as Calgarian Jordan Bachynski all have made cases to varying degrees to go in the June 26 draft.
“It’s an ideal time to be Canadian and an ideal time to be a basketball player,” Ejim said.
The Raptors have three picks in the draft — the 20th overall selection in the first round and two second-round picks at Nos. 37 and 59.