Saturday October 25, 2014

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Ejim, Birch part of bumper crop of Canadians in this year's NBA draft

TORONTO - Melvin Ejim is like so many Canadian basketball players, forced to leave home at a young age to pursue the game at the highest level.

So he's not surprised when he hears compliments about the Canadians who are going through this year's NBA draft process, about their level of maturity and work ethic.

"We come from a background where you're leaving your country, you're leaving your family, you're leaving your friends to pursue basketball, so it's not just a game we're playing to hang around," Ejim said. "I left when I was 15 and if I didn't make it (to the NBA), it was a waste of time, it was a waste of my mom's money, it was a waste of my efforts.

"So I had an outlook on it that it was professional. . . we go into that, leaving home, with that ideal. We go knowing we want to do everything it takes to make it. We don't play around, we act mature, we do all the necessary things, we work hard because we know that we have a lot of people in our corner that want us to succeed, and have put a lot into us succeeding."

The 23-year-old worked out for his hometown Raptors on Wednesday and is part of a bumper crop of Canadians in the June 26 draft. There could be anywhere from five to seven Canadians drafted, and three Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas, and Tyler Ennis are expected to go in the first round.

Ejim, who is projected to go in the second round, said there is a sense that he's part of something special.

"It's amazing. Just in the past 12 months, you can see the support has increased, just with the sheer numbers of people we have in the draft, and it's only going to continue to go up," Ejim said. "And it's great being someone who's in the forefront of it, who can help lead it, who can help direct it. It's an ideal time to be Canadian, it's an ideal time to be a basketball player."

Ejim left home to attend Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire. He went on to star at Iowa State, where he scored a Big 12-record 48 points against the TCU Horned Frogs in a game in February and was named Big 12 player of the year.

Khem Birch, a 21-year-old from Montreal and the Mountain West defensive player of the year for the UNLV Runnin' Rebels this past season, also worked out for Toronto on Wednesday.

It was the fourth NBA workout for both, and they figure they'll have practised for 12 or 13 teams before draft day. They're both trying to remain focused and not to be swept up in the excitement. But it was tough when actor Adam Sandler, in town to film a movie, dropped by the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night for a workout and pickup game.

"He's got a bit of a jump shot, he's got some nice moves, he makes you laugh while he's playing, so he's crafty," Ejim said. "He was a good guy. . . really was a good sport and a cool person."

"He's a great guy, his movies are so funny," Birch added. "They're kind of corny and funny at the same time. Seeing him was good, he's a humble guy."

There's been talk Ejim's size will hurt his draft prospects. He's characterized as a "tweener," an in-between player who isn't the exact fit for a particular position based on size and skills.

He is 6-7 and 218 pounds decent size for an NCAA power forward but not big enough to play that position the NBA.

"I have yet to see anyone say, 'Yo you're a tweener, we don't really do tweeners over here,'" Ejim said, prompting laughter from reporters. "I've been getting a positive vibe from it, and it's not even about being a tweener, it's about being a player. If you're somebody that can go out and play basketball at different levels and play at different positions, you're valuable, you're a good player. It's not really tweener, it's not really small, it's not really big, you're just a good player."

Dan Tolzman, the Raptors' director of scouting, isn't too concerned, saying there are a lot of small forwards in the NBA who were big men in college.

"I think you now look at players that are versatile enough to play multiple positions, it's almost a positive in today's game," Tolzman said. "You want the flexibility to, if a team goes big against you, you have the ability to just shift guys over a spot. . . And I think the same goes the other way when a team goes small.

"The more athletic your players, the better you are for that type of versatility," he added.

Tolzman liked the qualities both Canadians brought to Wednesday's workout, saying Birch is "so athletic and he's got the length and the shot blocking and the rebounding."

He liked Ejim's intensity.

"He's intriguing because he plays so hard defensively. . . just the fact he's a defensive guy who rebound the ball well, and can add a little bit of perimeter shooting and just the intensity that he brings is at the NBA level," Tolzman said.

The Raptors have three picks the 20th-, 37th- and 59th-overall selections in the draft. Toronto has never drafted a Canadian and there's been concern the pressure of playing for a hometown team might be too much.

Ejim, one of the older players in the draft after playing college ball for four years, said it depends on the person.

"I thought about that. . . If you're someone who is mature and knows how to handle themselves, who can be in tough situations and handle that and has that maturity, it's not as bad of a situation, it's something you can deal with if you're the right person," he said.

Tolzman agreed.

"Just the little bit I've interacted with (Ejim), he seems like the type of guy that he knows the right approach to it, and the desire to play here isn't to be around family, it's because this is the team he grew up rooting for," he said. "And I think that you get a lot of kids, they would rather wear the Raptors logo proudly than just to say they play for the Raptors, and I think Melvin is that type of guy."


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