Tristan Thompson is playing a major role in the NBA Finals, fresh off dispatching good friend Cory Joseph, who himself played a major postseason role in the Eastern Conference finals. The upside of Andrew Wiggins is once again without limit after the news that Tom Thibodeau will be the man tasked with shaping the next stage of his growth. Jamal Murray may be in the process of playing himself into top-five pick status. And the future of Canadian basketball was on full display at the BioSteel All Canadian Game just a few weeks back.
Despite all of that obvious, palpable growth, the most important development for Canada Basketball this year may have happened out of sight, in the D-League where Melvin Ejim was putting the Canadian program—and the NBA—on notice.
Once thought to be on the fringes of a potential spot on the Olympic roster, the 25-year-old could find himself playing a critical role as Canada looks to punch its ticket at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the Philippines from July 5-10.
Ejim's a long-time stalwart at the national level, and he suited up at the Pan American Games and the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup last summer. He was then one of just four non-NBA players on Canada's roster for the FIBA Americas Championship, averaging 5.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 12 minutes in what was a dominant but ultimately disappointing tournament for the team.
In the time since a gut-wrenching semifinal loss to Venezuela, Ejim's worked tirelessly to improve. He participated in summer league action, joined the Orlando Magic for training camp, and then transitioned directly to the Magic's D-League affiliate, the Erie Bayhawks.
The growth in Ejim's game was obvious from the season's opening tip.
"I was taking notice," says Raptors 905 head coach Jesse Mermuys, whose team went opposite Ejim on five occasions. "I like him as a player. I really loved his demeanor out on the court. I like his presence. He was showing some leadership. I think he's really close to being an NBA player."
Mermuys pointed to Ejim's improved play in the post as the biggest change from a game-planning standpoint, as he emerged as a necessary double-team and a threat to pass out of one. But the biggest thing that stands out about Ejim's play this year is his shooting, both pulling up in the mid-range and spotting up from outside.
The Academic All-American was only a serviceable 3-point shooter in his final two seasons at Iowa State and didn't really establish his stroke as more than a show-me option in Italy last season. For a player tasked with spending a fair amount of time on the perimeter on offence, that was concerning, and Ejim put in the requisite reps to extend his range. He shot 33 percent from the D-League's NBA 3-point line this season and knocked down 41.9 percent of his attempts from the corners.
That increased range could be enormous for Ejim's chances of eventually cracking an NBA roster, as it was a primary piece missing from his resume as a combo-forward. Combo-forward is a term—along with its dirtier cousin "tweener"—that may have been a negative in the past. Now, Ejim's embracing it.
"That's kind of been one of my biggest knocks: I've been a tweener. And there are advantages to that, and I think we showed that," Ejim says. "It's positive, for sure. I think I can bang in there, and I think I've done a great job of it, and I own it. I think I was able to show that I can really play on the perimeter, I could defend the perimeter, I wasn't going to be a liability that way.
"I just improved all the way around, it doesn't limit me. I think it's ultimately going to help me going forward."
With the NBA putting more and more value on defensive versatility and shooting from the power forward position, what was once a knock on Ejim may now be what gets him in the door.
"All of us are watching the NBA evolve, and these guys that are multi-faceted are becoming really valuable," Mermuys says.
Ejim primarily played the three for Erie, as the scoring-starved Bayhawks put the ball in his hands and tasked him with creating offence. He rewarded their faith, averaging 14.6 points, nearly two offensive rebounds, and 3.1 assists, with a strong 56.2 true-shooting percentage, and often had the ball in late-game scenarios. The Bayhawks were three points per-100 possessions better offensively with Ejim on the floor, nearly as big an impact as he made defensively, where he helped shave four points per-100 possessions off opponent totals.
His growth on the defensive end was less tangible but just as important. He averaged 5.7 defensive rebounds and 1.6 steals, and he was Erie's go-to defender on scorers, almost regardless of position.
At 6'6", Ejim's a bit small for the post by traditional standards, but a strong lower half—he's a solid 220 pounds—and a wingspan that stretches close to seven feet helps make up for that. Erie was aggressive in switching him all over the floor, and the requisite quickness to play the wing factored in when he moved to the four, allowing him to hedge or even switch on to guards. He became a tough defender to exploit—too strong for wings to post up, too quick for bigs to face up, and too agile to lose in the pick-and-roll.
As the D-League season rolled to a close, Ejim opted to leave the Bayhawks to close out the year with Umana Venezia in Italy. That's an opportunity for the new father to supplement his D-League income while playing postseason basketball to stay fresh leading almost right into the qualifying tournament. While the on-court loss was monumental to the Bayhawks, who continued the longest losing streak in D-League history after Ejim departed, head coach Bill Peterson missed what Ejim brought to the table without a ball most.
"It hurts a lot. The guy's a warrior," Peterson says. "He had such great intangibles off the floor, in the locker room, on the bus, on the plane, everywhere. He's a great team guy. He's a very mature guy. And then he can share what you believe with some of the young guys who don't understand.
"That's his edge, being that glue guy and that intangible guy on a team, because he does have that toughness, mentally and physically."
That's a common refrain when talking to anyone who's met Ejim.
"He's always going to be beloved because he's a total team player first," says Canada Basketball assistant general manager Rowan Barrett. "He does all the little things that help your team win games. He can guard multiple positions. He's a disruptive defensive player. And then, obviously, there's no selfishness in him. He's very selfless."
Once the Italian season wraps, Ejim's focus will shift back to the national team, where his newfound shooting and improved versatility should be even more valuable. Barrett isn't at liberty to comment on the potential involvement of specific players just yet, but on paper, Ejim seems like a no-brainer for the team.
Not only does he bring international experience and leadership, the Canadian team could be thinned out due to availability issues. Dwight Powell and Andrew Nicholson are unrestricted free agents, Kelly Olynyk just underwent shoulder surgery, and Murray is unlikely to be made available so soon after the draft. That could leave Ejim competing against Kyle Wiltjer and Robert Sacre for a spot in the post, or with Anthony Bennett for a combo-forward role that leans more toward the three, given the lack of wings in the program. And even those names are up in the air, as just days out from their pre-tournament training camp, no roster has been released publicly.
Ejim's ability to play either forward spot gives management some flexibility in creating a roster and head coach Jay Triano some versatility as Canada tries to upset Turkey and France to earn its first Olympic berth since 2000.
"It's definitely going to be a tougher road this time, but sometimes, that's what it takes," Ejim says. "I think that we have a great team that faced some adversity losing on such a big stage, and that's what helps build character.
"Hopefully we go out and shock some people."