UpNext brings you the best up-and-coming Canadian basketball talent. In this week’s instalment, Iowa State Cyclones star and standout scholar Melvin Ejim.
If, at the beginning of this college basketball season, someone had told you that a Canadian would be leading the Big Twelve in scoring come February, it may not have come as a surprise.
But if they said that the Canadian in question would be a senior—forcing you to cross Andrew Wiggins off the list—you may have had some second thoughts.
Yet, more than 20 games into the NCAA season, Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim is the Canadian atop the conference scoring race.
Oh, and you can add a 3.74 grade point average to his 18.3 points per game.
We’ve all heard stories of academic suspensions; of schools getting hit with sanctions for their players’ poor academic results or allowing their top performers to skate through with passing grades they haven’t really earned. But even if those stories didn’t permeate college sports, Ejim’s on-court and in-classroom success would be something worth celebrating.
Last year, the history major was named the inaugural Big Twelve Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year and gained membership into Phi Kappa Phi, America’s oldest, largest and most selective collegiate honour society. He also nearly averaged a double-double and became just the third player six-foot-six or shorter to lead the Big Twelve in rebounds (9.3 per game).
Ejim is the kid you were painfully jealous of in grade school because he was the best player on every team, always the first to raise his hand in class and the girl you had a crush on seemed more interested in him.
And he was nice to you.
The difference is this isn’t intramural dodge ball and Ejim isn’t rattling off the three boats on Christopher Columbus’s expedition across the Atlantic Ocean.
He’s a star on a basketball team ranked in the NCAA’s top 20 and even when he puts up 22 points and 13 rebounds against a conference rival, he’s expected in class the next morning .
Don’t believe it? Following the Cyclones 98-97, triple-OT win over Oklahoma State on Monday night, Ejim emailed me his itinerary.
11:20 pm – Game ends, shower and board bus to airport
Midnight – Flight to Des Moines, Iowa (study through the one-hour flight)
1:30 am – Back in dorm room
7:45 am – Wake-up call and breakfast
8:30 am – One-hour exam
9:30 am – Next class (also with short exam)
10:50 am – Break
11:00 am – Next class
12:20 pm – Lunch (usual 2pm practice cancelled for rest period)
Now imagine a schedule like that over a four-year career that has seen Ejim become one of only three players in Iowa State history to accumulate 1,000 points, 700 rebounds and 100 steals.
So how does he do it?
“I feel that time management has been crucial for me,” Ejim explained via email. “I have been able to balance my academic, social and athletic life in a way that I can still enjoy my college career, but it does get hard sometimes and usually school wins. So, for me, that means more hours studying and less watching a game on TV.
“School was always important because to this day [my] mom threatens my brothers that if they don’t do well in school, they won’t be able to play any sports. That was her tradeoff and we thank her for it. Because of that I was able to strive in the classroom.”
While Ejim is fearless on the glass, it was the fear of disappointing his mother that drove him to academic greatness.
Elizabeth Omoghan knew that in order to keep her six children on the straight and narrow she would need her eldest son, Melvin, to serve as an example. In turn, she did everything she could to further his basketball career as long he kept his grades up. Whether that was coming up with the cash to send him to a private school in Maryland at the age of 16, or making sure he had pocket money for a big tournament when he played AAU basketball with CIA Bounce in the summer.
“My mother—at the time—had four boys and my cousin living in a two bedroom apartment in Kipling [in the west end of Toronto],” Ejim wrote. “She did everything she could to enable us to be the men we are today. She has the biggest heart and is the strongest person I know. She never made any excuses and always got things done.”
With that type of upbringing, Melvin could never say that his grueling basketball schedule left him too tired to get a paper done.
Come March, Iowa State hopes to make it past the NCAA tournament’s round of 32, where their season ended last year. If they do, Ejim has a chance to match or surpass his head coach, Fred Hoiberg, who is currently second on ISU’s all-time list with 123 games started (1992-95).
Hoiberg had a 10-year NBA playing career and is rumored to be highly coveted as a future head coach in the Association. Which brings us to the prospect of Ejim enjoying an NBA future of his own when his college career ends this summer.
The negative perception that comes with being viewed as an undersized ‘tweener at the next level can be nullified with the heart, desire and basketball IQ that define Ejim’s game.
And when NBA GMs sit down across the table from a senior with a sparkling GPA and a recommendation from a highly respected former NBA player, it will be tough for them to bet against a guy who has shown time and time again that he has the ability really do it all.