TORONTO – Of the stalwarts who have consistently sacrificed their time summer after summer for the good of Canada Basketball, NBA veterans Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk are rightfully among the first that come to mind.
Both are men who for nearly a decade have given up parts of their summers to be with and play for the national team, regardless of anything else that may be going on in their lives.
These two aren’t the only ones who seemingly always answer the national team’s proverbial Bat Signal, though, as there’s at least always one more man who also never turns down Canada’s call.
"Melvin is also, you know, when you talk about me and Kelly, you have to talk about Melvin," said Joseph after the second day of the Canada’s senior men’s training camp ahead of the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. "Melvin’s also another one of the heart and souls of this program. He’s been doing it year in and year out. He’s been a key, key, key factor in any success that we’ve had, and he’ll continue to be."
Yes, just like Joseph and Olynyk, Melvin Ejim has, essentially, been a part of the national program’s furniture every summer and, again just like his two fellow national team counterparts, if Canada’s going to qualify for the Olympics from the World Cup, he’ll be a key reason why.
This is because Ejim, to borrow Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse’s words, is Canada’s "X-factor."
Though not well known to the average Canadian basketball fan because he’s made a career for himself playing professionally in Europe, Ejim is a swiss-army knife kind of player capable of doing virtually everything on the floor well, but not really excelling at any one thing, Ejim is a player who will likely be relied upon to do equal parts scoring, rebounding, defending and moving the ball all at a high level for Canada because these are all things he can do.
"He’s hard work and energy, in, out," said Nurse of Ejim. "You never really know what you’re going to get. He’s kind of an X-factor type of guy. I like him. I’ve liked him for a long time."
Canada’s Kelly Olynyk, left, and Melvin Ejim will be be expected to play big leadership roles for Canada at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. (Mark Blinch/CP)
Most notably for Canada, Ejim will likely be asked to fill in on the wing at the small forward spot, an obvious area of weakness for Canada. Despite his six-foot-seven frame, Ejim is actually a more natural power forward, but may have no choice but to slide into the three-spot for Canada.
But while the four might be where Ejim has found his most success, his versatility will allow him to play small forward without much issue because, as Nurse said, "it doesn’t really matter three or four for us."
"Doesn’t really change. You can be on multiple positions the way that we’re playing," said Ejim of playing the three. "I don’t think much really changes, whatever position I’m in."
One of Canada’s strengths heading into the World Cup will be its versatility and it looks like Nurse will be stretching the limits of his team’s malleability, even asking Ejim to do more than he has in the past.
"I think he’s been leaning on different guys in different positions throughout the training camp so far," said Ejim. "He’s definitely been telling me to do different things that I haven’t been doing my entire career, I would say. Just stuff like bringing up the ball and initiating the offence or doing different things, and I think that’s an aspect where I can grow and an aspect that he’s going to help me grow in as well."
Another new role for Ejim is, because of his veteran status, as a leader.
"I’ve been here for a while, I think guys respect what I have to say, I try my best to try to guide some of the new guys through and help motivate some of the other guys," said Ejim. "I think that’s part of my DNA, my character, so I definitely take it upon myself. I think coach has been leaning on me to do, so I definitely think there’s a bit of a leadership role."
As part of this leadership responsibility Ejim’s taken upon himself, players during this camp and beyond should be able to turn to him and his extensive FIBA history and experience.
The international game is obviously a lot different than the North American game, in general, not just from a rules perspective but also attitude and the kind of mental toughness that’s required to make it through a big-time FIBA tournament.
EJim knows what it takes to make it through these specific kinds of basketball battles and more than anything else, this is why he will be so important to Canada in China.
But it’s not just Ejim. He’s part of a contingent of European pros in camp who also knows what it takes to excel on the international stage.
"As you know there is a lot of ruggedness that won’t surprise them," said Nurse of Ejim and other overseas pro players at Team Canada camp. "I don’t know, what are the things you go through over there? You go through a tough journey to the gym, a tough gym, a funny gym or whatever and you just get on with it.
"I’d see that in the D-League all the time. You’d have three or four guys on the team every year I knew that [if] you’d play in Bismarck, you’d jump on the bus for seven hours down to Sioux Falls and they’d come off the bus and compete. They were hoopers, they were ballers. Wherever, whatever, it didn’t matter, they were ready to roll and those guys have some of that in them."
Following Monday’s news about who wasn’t going to be on team, it’s understandable to be down on Canada’s chances in China, but there’s no point complaining about it anymore. You make do with what you have, and right now Canada has, still, a talented collection of pro players that have the potential to do something special.
With players such as Ejim, Brady Heslip, Kevin Pangos and Phil and Thomas Scrubb, Canada still has a shot.
"I think those guys are all good players," said Nurse. "They all have a piece to their game that we need."
Joseph and Olynyk are the names that will get all the recognition for Canada moving forward, but they aren’t everything Canada has, and they aren’t the only ones who always answer the call, either.