December 28, 2023
How Gonzaga’s Yvonne Ejim has developed into one of the best post players in the country
Ejim has followed in the footsteps of many past Bulldogs frontcourt players
In today’s college basketball landscape, many players aren’t willing to develop their game within a program. With the explosion of the transfer portal, many players who don’t play a lot their first year will look for a new home right away. However, Gonzaga’s senior forward Yvonne Ejim is different. Her development over her four years at Gonzaga has made her into one of the best post players in not only the WCC but the country.
Ejim, a native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, started playing basketball at the age of seven. She initially enjoyed the community within the sport and had four older brothers who played so it became a family activity that brought them all together. As she started to play more, Ejim built a strong group of friends who played with her through her elementary school days. She continued to build meaningful and caring connections with these teammates, which led to her falling in love with the sport.
As Ejim continued to play, she caught the attention of the Canadian national team. In 2018, she was invited to play for Canada in the U17 Women’s World Cup. As she got better, a coach in Canada introduced her to the coaches at Gonzaga, as the program had a long history of recruiting kids from Western Canada. After they got her down for their team camp and saw what kind of person she was, they knew they wanted her. However, her older brother went to Iowa State, and Ejim’s decision came down to the Bulldogs and the Cyclones.
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“I had a couple of schools pop up here and there, but no one that really stuck like those two schools did, and they were my two final decisions coming down to it,” Ejim told The Next. “My brother, Melvin, he went to Iowa State and things like that. It was kind of cool seeing his legacy at that school. And I guess from that, I also wanted to create my own legacy a little bit. And then also the community that Gonzaga had here, I was more attracted to it. I felt more a part of it when I was on my visit.”
Upon Ejim’s arrival in Spokane, she didn’t see the floor right away. The Zags had a lot of talented post players, including WCC Player of the Year Jenn Wirth and Sixth Player of the Year Melody Kempton. Throughout the season, Ejim got some moments but only played 162 minutes and averaged just 3.7 points per game. Many players with freshman years like this would look for a new opportunity, but Ejim made a good friend who helped her get through those freshman blues.
Ejim became very close with senior guard Louise Forsyth, a fellow Canadian. They spent a lot of time together shooting, playing one-on-one and helping to make each other better. They would even go to the practice facility after home games when they didn’t play a lot and get work in. Forsyth had a big impact on Ejim’s development and improvement going into her second season.
“She and I would go to the gym, and we’d play one’s together, we’d shoot together and things like that, especially because we weren’t on the court as much,” Ejim said. “I think still finding a way to make basketball fun, especially with her when I didn’t have a lot of playing time and I was coming into a new program. I feel like from that I was able to connect with her and then also connect back to the sport when I didn’t have a lot of experience on the court … so I have her to thank for that and I feel like it also fed into my development throughout the year being able to play against her because she’s a phenomenal player, really good defender so it was kind of hard to score on her. But I think that definitely played a big role coming into my sophomore year.”
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The growth that Ejim made between her freshman and sophomore seasons was huge. Her minutes more than quadrupled, and her scoring and rebounding more than doubled. Despite only starting one game, Ejim averaged 10 points and six rebounds, winning WCC Sixth Player of the Year. She had two double-doubles including, 22 points and 10 rebounds off the bench in 21 minutes at Portland. She helped lead the Zags to a WCC championship and a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
“Her number one strength is her willingness to learn and her commitment to development,” assistant coach Craig Fortier told The Next. “If you just talk about physical skill set and physical ability, she’s the most unique combination of athleticism and strength that we’ve had and as well as any you’ll see. I mean, you put any kid out there, someone’s biggest five, who was a strong kid, she’s strong enough to manage them defensively. And then on the other end, that kid just obviously does not have any chance to stay with her from a speed standpoint. As people put smaller, more athletic, quicker kids on her she could just physically overmatch them. So it’s just it’s the combination of the speed or athleticism, with the strength that really is unique. As her skill set has caught up, you’re combining a series of things on the court that really it’s our job as coaches just put her in spots where she can she can utilize those things.”
Going into her junior year, Ejim stepped into a starting role and continued to become a star. She started every game and averaged 16.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, which ranked third and second, respectively, in the WCC. She had 11 20-point performances, including a career-high 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting against Queen College early in the season. She had eight double-doubles, including four over the final five games for the Zags. Her performances made her an All-WCC First Team performer, a three-time WCC Player of the Week and a Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award finalist.
The strength of Ejim’s play over her junior season led to a big moment in her career, an invite to play with the senior Canadian national team at the FIBA Women’s Americup in Mexico. Coming off the bench in every game, she helped Canada to a 4-0 record in group play and a third-place finish in the tournament. She averaged eight points and four rebounds in 17 minutes per game over the seven-game event. The opportunity was one of the greatest of her life and it is something she wants to continue doing for a long time.
“It meant the world to me to play at the senior level,” Ejim said. “I’ve been through so many of the younger developmental teams and I’ve seen so many of my own teammates that I have played with when I was younger, get that opportunity and to be able to do that myself and wear that number and play at that stage. Play with those players, play with those coaches, play with my flag on my chest I feel like it was an eye-opening experience for me. I always dreamed of getting there and I actually got there, and I want to continue to be a part of that program. I feel like it’s one of the first moments in my life that I’ll never forget type of thing, so it really truly meant the world to me.”
Coming into this season off her senior national team appearance and a strong junior season, it wasn’t a surprise that Ejim has started off her senior year with a bang. Through the Zags’ first 13 games, Ejim is averaging 20 points and eight rebounds per game. Her 20 points lead the WCC and rank 25th in the country. She is shooting 65.5% from the floor, which is 10th in the country. She is also only one of two players in the top 10 playing for a mid-major program and has taken 38 more shots than anyone else in the top 10.
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Ejim has helped to lead the Zags to a 13-2 record this season. They are one of only two teams in the country with 13 wins already. In Gonzaga’s biggest game of the season, against then-No. 3 Stanford, Ejim scored a season-high 27 points and 12 rebounds on 11-for-16 shooting. The performance garnered Ejim WCC, ESPN and Ann Meyers Drysdale Player of the Week awards. Ejim’s play is a big reason why the Zags are 4-2 against Power Five opponents this year. She has scored in double figures in every game this year and has nine 20-plus-point performances so far.
“I think her development is a really healthy development track. It’s not what every kid hopes it is. But it’s a way you have legitimate growth,” Fortier said. “She kind of went through the struggles of trying to earn her way on the court, had this kind of amazing pop moment because of some unique circumstances in that WCC championship game. Then she becomes a key contributor as a sophomore, you know, that development happens. Last year she becomes a first-team all-conference player, and now she’s gone from really talented, really effective, to the game is starting to slow down for her. She’s very rarely rushed.”
Ejim’s growth over time is what makes Gonzaga one of the premier programs in the country. Lisa Fortier and her staff do an excellent job of finding talented players who can fly under the radar or want a slightly different experience than what the Power Five offers and develop them into superstars. They have done this at an especially high level with post players. They had back-to-back sixth players of the year in Ejim in 2022 and Kempton in 2021. The Zags have produced four of the last six WCC players of the year, with two being forwards.
However, it’s not just the Gonzaga program that makes these players stars. All of them have a drive to want to be great and the Fortier and her staff just put them in a position to succeed. Ejim is no different. She has an extremely high work ethic and has really taken the coaching she has received from the staff to heart. She knows what she’s needed to work on and has really focus on honing these key details to take her from great to elite.
“I’d say my teammates, just the way that they play, the confidence that they have in me, I feel like that’s a big part of why I’m playing the way I’m playing right now,” Ejim said. “I kind of have their trust in my game and I feel like that fuels me. It fuels my own confidence as well because without that, I don’t know if I do a lot of the stuff I do right now. So I definitely give a lot of credit to my teammates, just how good of players they are and the opportunities that they’re willing to give me.”
Ejim has been playing at a high level this season, but one of the biggest things you notice about her play, no matter how she’s doing, is that she always has a big smile on her face. Many people smile from their own success, but for Ejim, it comes from watching her teammates succeed. She smiles to try to help keep her teammates having fun and giving them energy. She knows they play their best when they’re having fun but also knows the importance of balancing her fun energy and with the competitive energy.
Ejim is a smiler, and it comes along with her personality. She thinks she fits the mold of a stereotypical nice Canadian person. She is very encouraging of her teammates and wants to help everyone. Ejim feels she is at her best when she is giving other people confidence and making sure they know that she believes they can always do their best. Her coaches would agree and feel that is what makes her so valuable.
“First of all, she’s super sweet kid. They probably hate the comparison, but she’s a super nice Canadian kid like so many of those kids are,” said Fortier. “I think one of the things that’s really special about her, she’s a deep feeler. She cares about causes, she cares about issues, she cares about the environment, she cares about people. It’s fun to be around her because she’s not just someone who’s always kind of thinking about herself and what’s next for her. She’s thinking about other people quite a bit. She’s heavily involved in trying to make things better for people and it’s fun to be around someone who’s on a mission based in something like that.”
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Ejim has big goals for this season for the Zags, and beating Stanford helped point them in the right direction to attain those goals. However, when her college career is over, Ejim dreams of continuing her basketball career at a higher level. She wants to play in the WNBA, and her assistant coach believes she can not only make a roster but make an impact. Fortier believes that she has more to her game than is shown in Gonzaga’s games. He believes whatever WNBA coach gets Ejim will be surprised how big her skillset is and how much she can bring to a franchise.
However, whenever her basketball career ends, Ejim has another dream: She wants to go into the medical field. She has a deep desire to help others. It goes back to her personality; she cares way more for others than she does herself and wants to see everybody around her succeed.
Until then, her development will continue to happen at a healthy rate as she tries to help the Zags reach new heights, all the while smiling every step of the way.
“You look at her assist-to-turnover ratio, which is amazing for frontcourt players. We’re playing through her. Her efficiency’s off the charts,” Fortier said. “You know, not only the field goal percentage, but you look at some of those advanced metrics, wins above replacement, things like that. I mean, she’s really playing at a phenomenal level, and clearly, we’re doing that against an amazing nonconference schedule.
“I think her progression is something we always hope for. It happens to be that she had the right combination of work ethic and diligence and I think her progression has been, I would say, [a] healthy one. A lot of players want it all at once, but you also see a lot of talented players that maybe get minutes they haven’t earned or get usage that they haven’t earned and they develop a lot of bad habits. And I think Yvonne was able to avoid some of that, and that’s kind of led to where she’s at right now.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.