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Canadian journeyman Patrick Emilien’s work ethic proves it is better late than never

With two countries and three schools on his résumé, Emilien has grinded his way to Maryland.

When Canadian forward Patrick Emilien committed to Maryland on June 8, not many people expected the Western Michigan and St. Francis (NY) transfer to change the complexion of Maryland men’s basketball’s 2022-23 roster.

Heck, even opposing coaches may not give the fifth-year journeyman any respect.

“Look, with all due respect to certain people, Patrick Emilien was playing for St. Francis in Brooklyn, my high school was bigger, last year,” UCLA head coach Mick Cronin said following his team’s drubbing of the Terps on Dec. 14.

But Emilien doesn’t care. The crowd may release some oohs and aahs as he cranks back his unorthodox shot — which he admits has been a journey and two bad shoulders had played a role in — but he’s still received praise from his coach Kevin Willard, such as being the team’s MVP on certain nights.

Emilien knows it looks like he doesn’t take anything seriously, but a flip switches on the court. His past coaches say he has a “million dollar smile,” and his goofy personality has been a welcomed addition in the locker room. While he may not be the flashiest player, his voyage was hardly expected for a player of Emilien’s descent.

Unlike many of his Division I peers, Emilien got a late jump in his basketball career.

The 23-year-old did not start playing basketball until he was 14, having previously played hockey and baseball. The sole reason Emilien even started playing was that his friends played; a late growth spurt did not hurt, either.

Emilien’s upward trajectory did not begin until about two years later when he was discovered at 16 years old. Emilien will tell you he was terrible back then, and few dispute that claim.

Enter Adeel Sahibzada, the founder of the Toronto Basketball Academy (TBA), an AAU program in Canada.

“He used to play at a tier two basketball program,” Sahibzada told Testudo Times. “Right? So a tier two. So there’s high performance best prep programs, and there’s tier one and then tier two. So he’s at a tier two basketball game. I happened to be there refereeing a basketball game, and I saw this kid and he couldn’t dribble with his left hand. And he was a pretty good athlete, had good length, had some kind of charisma. He missed a couple dunks. And as I was like, ‘You know, why don’t you come out,’ and I just went and invited him to our AAU tryouts.”

Thus began the basketball progression of Emilien, and perhaps it was the perfect fit.

“I was not good at basketball, but he saw a little bit of potential, I think I dunked in warmups,” Emilien said. “So [Sahibzada] brought me over there, it’s like a very – a lot of prep programs were expensive and kind of entitled in Canada. And this was just a gritty, underground, bunch of underdogs in this program that ultimately, a bunch of people became successful.”

Though it took Emilien some convincing of his mom and his sister to play for TBA with questions of a bad neighborhood — which Sahibzada said was called “the jungle” — it was all basketball for young Patrick.

TBA did not care for the luxury of the sport. Its players wore reversible jerseys, its coaches worked until five o’clock, and the team traveled as many as 17 hours through the night to save money on hotel costs. It was a grind, but Emilien embodied it, according to Sahibzada.

On the court, Emilien’s skill set improved, and it improved fast. He was terrible in his first year for TBA, but a former starter decided to transfer from the program, leaving an open spot for Emilien to shine. Emilien’s success did not come by mistake, as his work ethic rose above all.

“I just remember that we hit it off right away,” Sahibzada said. “He wanted to watch a lot of film. He wanted to travel. On an AAU team, we had three teams then, and because he’s on the U-16 team, you still have the U-17 and U-18 teams. He’d play literally six games in a weekend, and he’d play with all three teams. So he’d be with me, because me, I would coach all three teams as well. So yeah, I mean, just his love to be better, kind of got us fairly close.”

Despite Emilien’s fast track to success, he finished his senior year of high school with zero Division I offers.

“So in high school, coming out of Canada, especially at that time, now there’s a lot of talent there, but I’m pretty old now. So back then it was like you had to have a Division I offer to even be considered to get other ones,” Emilien said. “So getting the initial offer was really hard. So I think for my whole last year, I didn’t have a Division I offer. And then after the season, Adeel had set up some exhibition games.”

Ironically, former Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos — who is also a former Maryland assistant coach and still hangs around the program today — extended Emilien his first offer. The offers started to flow in soon after, but Emilien’s first landing spot came by mistake.

Former Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins made the trip to Toronto to watch a big man he was recruiting at the time. Instead, he came away impressed with his opponent, Emilien, who claims Hawkins did not even know who he was until he dropped 40 points on someone they offered.

Hawkins remembers watching Emilien play against that other big kid, and when the game ended, the two coaches agreed to play another half. After the afternoon game, Emilien’s coach asked Hawkins if he wanted to come to their workout that night. Not only did he go to his workout that night, but he went the next morning as well before he had to head back to Michigan despite an invite to a third workout.

Emilien’s athleticism, the fact that he was a “sponge” — a word Sahibzada also used — and his work ethic made it easy for Hawkins and his staff to extend the offer.

“I was thrilled to get him because of what – I remember telling them that I felt like he was a big blob of Play-Doh,” Hawkins told Testudo Times. “Really, really raw. But his work ethic was such that we could mold him into anything. And they liked that. So we were fortunate.”

Hawkins was blown away by TBA and Canadian basketball in general, which did not put a time limit on basketball. When Emilien arrived on campus, Hawkins told him that he was only allowed a specific number of hours per week in practice and in the weight room, much to the befuddlement of Emilien.

Coming in at 190 pounds his freshman year, maybe Emilien really was like a blob of Play-Doh.

Playing mostly the three and a bit of the four for Western Michigan, Emilien came in as a “nervously awkward” kid, according to Hawkins. But he eventually found a role and fit in on a team that had no cliques.

Emilien described his early nonconference minutes as “iffy,” but he eventually found his way as a frequent starter by the end of his freshman season. His playing time decreased during his sophomore season, but he was getting stronger and still enjoying his time in Kalamazoo.

Things changed at the end of Emilien’s sophomore season, though, just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world.

Hawkins was fired from Western Michigan after 20 years. The move left Emilien with “a little bit” of uncertainty before he ultimately decided to stay with the program under assistant-turned-head coach Clayton Bates, who Emilien called an “amazing guy.”

But the 2020-21 season was a crapshoot for Emilien, who caught COVID twice and played only 14 games. It was time for a change.

Despite production that did not pop off the page, Emilien’s work ethic — both in the classroom and on the court — presented opportunities for him. Along the way to help him was none other than Hawkins.

“I told all those kids, and I meant it — Pat, we’re talking about Pat — but I told them that day when everything went down, I told them that my loyalty was to them,” said Hawkins, who described that “brutal” day he was let go. “They had put their faith in me as a coach and I, in turn, am no longer an employee in Western Michigan. My loyalty was not to the university any longer because I was no longer employed. It was to them for putting their faith in me. And so I would help them any way I could the rest of my life and the rest of theirs.”

Hawkins noted he had multiple conversations with Emilien about his first transfer, including a first one where he was “about 90% sure” that he wanted to transfer but didn’t know where or at what level. Ultimately, Emilien ended up in Brooklyn to play for St. Francis (NY) for the 2021-22 season.

With thousands of names in the portal at the time, Emilien admitted that he had to land on any great opportunity that presented itself. Playing as a small-ball five for the Terriers, Emilien excelled. He shattered career-highs in minutes per game (30.9), points per game (12.5), rebounds per game (6.5) and field goal attempts per game (10.9), among others.

The market opened again following the season, and this time more and better options were available. Just as Emilien appeared to be heading out west, Maryland called.

From second-tier Canadian basketball in high school to mid-major college basketball to the low-major level. That is not exactly how one draws up becoming a contributor for a storied program and a nationally ranked team.

Even in the midst of a rise through two countries and three schools, Emilien has barely had any time to sit down and reflect.

“I probably should more,” Emilien said. “Honestly, I’ve just been like, everything’s been a rollercoaster, and I kind of just been going with the motions. But, man, I know by the last game of the year, hopefully deep into March, it’s gonna hit me for sure. But right now, I’m just kind of living in the moment, just trying to help this team out.”

Emilien’s 247Sports recruiting page shows no stars. It does not show a picture, either. But it didn’t happen by mistake. The words “work ethic” resonante more than anything, but Emilien’s persona will help him to success regardless.

“He’s got a very structured approach to grow. He’s got such a growth mindset,” Sahibzada said. “And his work ethic, his opportunity, what he’s been able to accomplish in his life, is a testament to his work ethic. So, I mean, if there was a perfect student-athlete, it is this guy.”

“Sometimes you get people that walk into a room and you’re kind of like, ‘ugh, God,’ and you pick up your phone and act like you’re talking to somebody else,” Hawkins added. “You know, when Pat walks into a room, you’re looking forward to talking to him and catching up with him.”

Emilien hopes to help the Terps get back on track as Big Ten play resumes in January. It’s the least he’s ever had to create for himself on offense, but he can put his teammates in position for success. Whether that is setting up a bucket for Jahmir Young or being a mentor to “little baby Canadian” Caelum-Swanton Rodger, Emilien’s fingerprints are all over the upward trajectory of the program.

“What Patrick taught me, that it doesn’t matter what age you are. It doesn’t matter about all these other things, they’re all just semantics,” Sahibzada said. “What really matters is the work ethic that a person can have. Because potential is really scary. The majority of the people, if people say you still have potential, it means you’re just always scratching it. But for Patrick, he taught me that the growth mindset is about investing in people and allowing people to invest in themselves as well, because it’s a two-way street. If they invest in themselves equally, then there’s an opportunity for growth, and it’s better late than never.”

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