CHICAGO - The young man with broad shoulders and a bright smile leans back, relaxed in his chair, and crosses his muscular arms, because young men like him, with broad shoulders and bright smiles don't have much to worry about.
They're big enough for every moment.
The world and its opportunities should belong to him: He's 23, 6-foot-6, and a recent graduate of Iowa State — and oh, this Brampton boy is headline news in Des Moines, Iowa.
And if this was Des Moines, and the young man was sitting inside the Hilton Coliseum - where the Iowa State Cyclones play - he'd be affectionately crushed by so many wearing so much cardinal and yellow, because they know him. He's Melvin Ejim: No one has played more basketball games for Iowa State (135). Few Cyclones have ever been as successful on a basketball court (12th in scoring with 1,643 points).
But this isn't Des Moines, this is a big gymnasium on Chicago's west side. It's the second day of the NBA combine and in this large gym are plenty other large, young men with huge reputations from other corners of America. And they want to steal Melvin's dream. Because in front of NBA general managers and scouts there are no pep bands to proclaim Ejim's college achievements; all he has are his broad shoulders and a basketball - his tools to answer the crucial question: Who is Melvin Ejim?
But don't they not know him already?
"I don't think they knew as much about me," Ejim says, and his smile turns into a sneer. "If anything, people knew about me more in the Big 12 (NCAA conference), and everybody appreciated what I did, but it was still kind of downplayed.
"But I think once I got the Big 12 Player of the Year, and I beat out Andrew Wiggins - who is a phenomenal player - people started to realize: 'Wait, Wiggins was in that league? Marcus Smart was in that league? Joel Embiid was in that league? And THIS guy got the Big 12 Player of the Year?' It solidified for people: 'Well he might actually be pretty good,' but it still left some doubt in people."
Doubt? What kind of doubt?
There was Ejim on Day 1, fluttering along the true NBA 3-point line, hitting more shots from distance than any other prospect. Then on Day 2 he's screaming on the court, communicating, waving his arms, exploding from one end to the other, making himself too loud and too energetic to be forgotten. Meanwhile, his fellow high-ranked Canadians, Tyler Ennis and Nik Stauskas, decided to participate in only selective drills. And Wiggins, Embiid, and Jabari Parker, the provisional Top three prospects ahead of June 26's NBA draft, decided to skip the event entirely.
Doubt? There can't be any doubt of Melvin Ejim's passion and potential. Does he really have to sell himself so hard to get drafted?
"I think he does," says Matt Kamalsky, director of operations for the college prospect website DraftExpress. "When you look at guys getting drafted who are significantly older than their class, it's very rare for guys over 23/24-years old to get picked at all, let a lone make a team, and then be successful at all in the NBA.
"But just because it hasn't happened doesn't me it won't work for him."
It's not a unique perspective: Too old and too small are ubiquitous descriptions of Ejim's flaws in most scouting reports. He spent four years at Iowa State, while Wiggins, Ennis and Stauskas's immediate talent created immediate hype. The highest Ejim is projected to be selected is somewhere in the mid-to-late second round. After the Top 30 draft picks, however, there are little-to-no guaranteed contracts. But criticism and long odds won't blunt Ejim's smile. Defiance somehow makes it brighter.
"People say I'm too old, because on the paper it says I'm 23 and the other guy is 22 and we're born in the same year— it's silly," Ejim says. "They say stay in college for four years, and I wasn't going to get any younger by staying. It's part of the process.
"The undersized thing, I've been hearing that from Day 1. That has kind of been overplayed now. They're saying I'm undersized because they have to, because there is nothing else to say. Can you say I can't shoot well enough because I think I proved that [on Day 1 of the combine]. What are they going to say? That I didn't do well enough on the perimeter? That's what they do here, they criticize—they want to evaluate."
And Ejim wants to be evaluated. He wants to be poked and prodded and tested, again and again. He graduated with a history major and business minor, and in the future he wants to go to law school. But that's tomorrow. Today, he measures his growth with every shot he attempts, and every defensive challenge. He can feel himself growing into an NBA player.
"A lot of people don't think I can shoot from the perimeter, and a lot of people don't think I can defend the perimeter," he says. "I'm just trying to prove them wrong, and I think that is just the first step. Letting them know I can be a knockdown shooter. I can space the floor. I did it in college and being able to translate that to the (NBA) 3-point line — just showing people that I have the capability to do that, the capability to play on the perimeter as a [small forward] and it was gratifying."
"Just listening to him talk its very obvious - and it's not with all these guys - he knows what he needs to do in order to put himself in the best position to get drafted," Kamalsky says. "Guys don't have that kind of degree of self-awareness and maybe that maturity is a positive."
And maturity, and perspective are Ejim's greatest strengths. He came to the combine not just to show, but to tell. He wonders: Why would a general manager just obsess over a freakish, young talent that needs constant work? When here he is, learning, adapting, and thriving.
Ejim remembers those early, early mornings - sometimes 6 am - walking or biking or busing to the Brampton or Mississauga YMCA. Sometimes he'd have to bring his brother's health card and pretend to be someone else, because money was too tight for a membership, and one person can only have so many guest passes. And most of the time young Melvin wouldn't even get on the court; he'd be off to side with a ball, watching his uncle and his uncle's friend play, listening whenever he was told to: "Melvin, work on your handles."
And he grew bigger and stronger and better, but he was still often an inch or inch and a half shorter than many others. So he worked and worked, from Amateur Athletic Union basketball to the NCAA. He counts his uncle, David, AAU coach Mike George (now his agent) and Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, as part of his inner circle because they ingrained in him the everlasting directive; and if you listen to older, wiser Melvin long enough the mantra hits you like his smile:
"I still think I can do a better job of being a better player. Solidify in people's mind that I'm a player, that I'm good, that I'm good enough."
Those ranked higher than Ejim completely agree.
"I've worked out with him," says Ennis, projected to be selected in the Top 20. "I think he really shoots the ball better than people expect. At Iowa State he was playing more (small forward), going forward I think he has the ability to dribble the ball well enough to move to the wing."
"We (Michigan) played Iowa State this year - Melvin's a beast," says Stauskas, also potentially a Top-20 pick. "He's a little bit undersized. He's a guy I feel is going to go to workouts and really impress some people."
Only when asked about workouts and meetings with NBA teams does Ejim become skittish. Dig deep enough and he reveals a meeting with the Utah Jazz next week, and then maybe three or four other teams after that. But each session is like a little secret, meant only for him.
"My dream is to play in the NBA, to be a contributing part of a NBA team and continue to work, and be a solid player - the best player I can be. However I get there, time will tell."
Maybe it's why he's smiling: This is Melvin Ejim's moment, after all. His big shoulders can bear it.