Melvin Ejim has NBA aspirations, and one of his main supporters has seen it all in the Association.
Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg has been on both ends of the NBA Draft spectrum, having been selected 52nd overall in the 1995 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers and spending four seasons in the Timberwolves' front office after his 10-year playing career. Four of those years were spent with the Bulls, where Hoiberg averaged a modest 5.8 points and 2.2 assists in 21 minutes per game.
Hoiberg has worked out for teams as a collegiate prospect and watched other workouts in preparation for the draft. He's been both the interviewer and interviewee in pre-draft meetings for NBA teams, and he knows what front offices are looking for, both as a player and executive.
That unique perspective is something the 6-foot-6 Ejim, a second-round prospect, said he'll use to his advantage during the process.
"(Hoiberg) knows a lot of these GMs by name, he can call them up any time, and he knows this process," Ejim said. "He’s been in this process and he’s been on the other end of this process, interviewing guys. So he has a ton of insight and he’s just trying to steer me in the right direction and focus on things they would be looking for.
"Coach Fred is a great mentor and role model, somebody who knows the ins and outs of basketball and being in the front office. He’s a great guy and he’s really helped me along, not just in basketball, but in life. Especially throughout this process."
Ejim committed to Greg McDermott and Iowa State in August 2009, and remained committed the following spring when McDermott bolted for Creighton and was replaced by Hoiberg. In four seasons with the Cyclones the Canadian averaged at least 23 minutes and nine points per game each year, capped off with an impressive senior year in which he averaged 17.8 points per game and was named the Big 12 Player of the Year over the likes of Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, expected top-3 picks in June.
The Cyclones won 28 games, won the Big 12 Tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16, ultimately falling to eventual NCAA Tournament champion Connecticut.
It was the program's most successful season in more than a decade, and Ejim had as big a hand in it as anyone. He led the Cyclones in both points and rebounds and was one of two players in a major conference to average 17 points and eight rebounds per game; the other was Duke's Jabari Parker. Yet for all the numbers he put up, including a 48-point outburst in a win over TCU, Ejim said his most important contribution came in the leadership he provided to a team made up of a handful of transfers and three freshmen.
"I think the most important thing is, I was a leader. With so many great players, with so many different transfers, guys that came in, we were able to lead them in the right direction, able to steer their ship the right way," he said. "That, coupled with being the team’s leading scorer and rebounder and Big 12 Player of the Year, I think there’s definitely things on my resume that show a huge impact on the team and on the Big 12, so I think it was a great year and our team had a lot of success. I think I did it most with my leadership, the energy and the hard work I brought to the team every day."
Ejim, a projected second-round pick, helped himself at last week's NBA Draft Combine. He hit a combine-best 18 of 25 spot-up 3-pointers, had a 35-inch vertical and his 3.14-second 3/4 court sprint was the second fastest of all participants.
His performance was solid, but just like last season he said he was proudest of advice Hoiberg shared with him on how to handle the combine.
"He told me, 'You’re a vocal guy, you naturally talk and want to motivate people and talk, and that’s something they look for.' That’s something that guys are afraid to do here (at the combine), in this kind of setting, so just to be vocal and go out there and encourage guys to be positive to show guys I could be on a team in a situation full of a ton of players and still have a presence," he said. "And that presence, (Hoiberg's) someone that comes into a room and you know he’s there, and that’s someone I try to emulate, something I try to do on a daily basis. I think that today I was able to do a little bit of that and I can only continue to do better. It was a great experience today and that’s one thing he told me that I took to heart."
If Ejim had a couple extra inches or touted a better outside shot he'd likely be in the discussion for a first-round pick. Still, there's plenty to like about him, and he's a lot like Jimmy Butler was at Marquette in that he's an intelligent player, a sound defender, rebounds well for a tweener and excels around the basket.
In addition to a pair of first-round picks, the Bulls hold a second-round pick (No. 49 overall), and Ejim said Tom Thibodeau's system is one he could see himself thriving in. This past season the 6-foot-6 wing allowed 0.795 points per possession, which ranked in the 71st percentile among all Division I players. He played bigger than his position, helping him allow just 0.589 points per possession in post-up situations, putting him in the 89th percentile nationally.
"I love the Bulls' system. I love how Thibodaeu is defensive-minded. He's somebody who stresses defense, and that’s how they get out in transition, that’s how they get out and play. And they have some great players who really are gritty, they’re tough, they focus and reiterate that defensive principle, and I think that’s something I do well. I think I’m a defensive guy and somebody who goes in and works hard and has a chip on my shoulder and can definitely help a team like that."