Lewenberg: Evolving NBA game emphasizes versatility in draft

Josh Lewenberg
6/4/2014 6:26:16 PM
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TORONTO - Nearly eight years ago, the Raptors took a low-risk chance on an intriguing prospect out of Texas when they used a second-round draft pick to select the position-less P.J. Tucker.

Tucker, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound bull, had the build of a power forward trapped in the frame of a shooting guard. By all accounts he was a misfit, destined to end up in the league's scrapheap with the vast majority of its second-rounders.

During his rookie season, Tucker played 21 games for Toronto, bouncing back and forth from the D-League before he was waived by the team less than a year into his NBA journey. After playing in six countries over the next five years, Tucker returned to the league and put up career-highs as a 28-year-old starting for the Phoenix Suns last season.

The league has changed and, as a result, so has the need for players that are able to easily adapt.

Enter Iowa State senior and Toronto-native Melvin Ejim, who is hoping to hear his named called sometime during the second round in this month's draft.

Like Tucker and many talented prospects before him, Ejim has been labeled a "tweener" - a hybrid player stuck in between positions as a result of size, strength or skill set.

For a long time, the term carried a negative connotation in NBA circles. Who will he defend? How does he fit in? Now it's become the norm. Tweeners, combo guards, stretch fours. As teams continue to challenge the defence with smaller, quicker lineups, the NBA is evolving into a league void of prototypical positions.

On Thursday, the Miami Heat will begin their pursuit of a third consecutive title led by LeBron James, perhaps the most unique basketball player we've ever seen, capable of playing and guarding four or five positions on the floor at a high level. Last week, Oklahoma City was eliminated in the Western Conference Finals with three point guards on the court together down the stretch of Game 6. The team that ousted them and Miami's opponent in the Finals, the Spurs possess the versatility to match up with almost any style of play, thanks in large part to their versatile wings - Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Boris Diaw.

Ultimately, what position you play is less important than the underlying question - can you play?

At 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Ejim is confident that there's a place for him and his well-rounded game on an NBA team.

"I think it depends on how you look at the word 'tweener'," he said following Wednesday morning's pre-draft workout in the Raptors' practice facility at the Air Canada Centre. "If you see it as a valuable thing, then I think that I bring a lot of stuff. I think that I'm a small forward and I bring versatility to be able to defend bigger guys, I have a strong body that can do a lot of things defensively. Then offensively [I'm] versatile, can shoot the ball and play inside and out. And if you don't consider those good things, then I guess tweener's a bad thing."

Ejim, the Big 12 Conference player of the year, has fully embraced his basketball identity. "It's better than being called a 'glue guy'," he said of the tweener label.

"I've yet to see anyone say, 'yo, you're a tweener, we don't really do tweeners over here'," Ejim joked. "And honestly, 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 on different levels and play at different positions, then you're valuable, you're a good player."

Following Tuesday's auditions, a pair of combo guards, Jordan Clarkson and Nick Johnson - also expected to go in the second round - echoed a similar sentiment. Versatility will also be a valuable commodity when the Raptors make their first-round selection at pick no. 20. UCLA's Kyle Anderson is a point guard in a 6-foot-9 body, athletic Clemson product K.J. McDaniels can defend multiple positions, while NC State's T.J. Warren projects as a versatile and unconventional scorer. All three wing players are expected to workout in Toronto later this week.

"It's almost a positive in today's game," said Dan Tolzman, director of scouting for the Raptors. "You want the flexibility that if a team goes big against you, you have the ability to just shift guys over a spot and keep your best players out there. I think the same goes the other way. If guys go small, you'd like to have perimeter players that can bang down low and can rebound hard when you're in a small ball game. I think it's just the progression of the game."

Working out alongside fellow Canadian Khem Birch, a Montreal-native out of UNLV, Ejim impressed the Raptors, not only with his versatility and commitment to defence but with his approach, maturity and professionalism.

"He came in [wearing] slacks and a nice button-down shirt," Tolzman said of Ejim. "He looked like he was coming to an interview and I think that clearly it resonates with us because this is a professional job interview for these guys."

With a couple second-round picks at 37 and 59, the Raptors could consider selecting the hometown product, who would be a welcomed addition within Dwane Casey's system. Although his skill set continues to fly under the radar in a talented, wing-heavy draft class, it's not hard to envision him catching on with a team and working his way into a rotation, not unlike Tucker in Phoenix.

"His niche in my opinion will be as a defensive player," Tolzman said. "He's a strong defender and I think the level of intensity he plays with bodes well for guys that focus on defence because when they give their all, they impact the game somehow, even if their shot's not there."

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