Birch Took Advantage of His Opportunity in 2018-19
ORLANDO – In addition to proving that he can be a big-time difference-maker for a team – as he did for the Orlando Magic over the final 10 weeks of the regular season – reserve center Khem Birch also proved something to himself in the process.
Once resigned to the fact that his playing career would likely force him back to Europe, Birch took advantage of an opportunity presented to him by virtue of a season-ending injury to Mo Bamba. In the process of playing well in Febraury, March and April, he most likely shored up his immediate future in the NBA.
``I’m not talking to my agent now about going back overseas,’’ Birch said after playing a key role in the Magic’s push to the playoffs. ``We’re just going to talk about what’s going to happen next year. But I have no doubt now that I’m an NBA player.’’
Undrafted out of UNLV in 2014, Birch kept his basketball dreams alive by playing in the NBA’s G League and then later in Turkey and Greece. He made the Magic’s roster in 2017-18, but he played only sparingly as the team’s third-string center. The 2018-19 season seemed to be heading the same direction before Bamba suffered a stress fracture in his left tibia, vaulting Birch from the team’s third-string spot to second behind all-star starter Nikola Vucevic.
As someone who regularly ran on the treadmill, lifted weights and played one-on-one sessions even after games when he didn’t appear in the action, Birch always kept himself in great shape and ready. When his big moment arose, the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder was more than ready.
In his first game filling in for Bamba, Birch had four points, six rebounds and a block shot in a Magic defeat of Brooklyn. Days later, he helped to key the Magic to a five-game winning streak just before the break for the NBA All-Star Game, including a spectacular four-block night in a win in Milwaukee.
Late in the season, as the Magic were going 22-9 to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2012, Birch had four double-digit scoring nights, including a career-high-tying 13 points on March 14 at the Amway Center. He pulled down 10-or-more rebounds twice, blocked at least one shot 20 times and swatted two-or-more shots five times.
Despite being undersized for a center – both in height and weight – Birch proved his abilities as a rim protector late in the season. Using his expansive wing span and his quick-off-the-floor and explosive leaping abilities, Birch ranked fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed in the restricted area (50.6 percent) after Feb. 2, according to Second Spectrum Sports. To put that into perspective, the top three are Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (48.6 percent), Portland 7-footer Zach Collins (48.7 percent) and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (49.7 percent).
Also, Birch tied for 10thin the NBA in field goal percentage allowed inside six feet of the rim after Feb. 2 – the date when he stepped into a backup center role for the Magic. His 50.8 percent allowed on shots inside of six feet (61 of 120) compared favorably to other defensive luminaries such as Antetokounmpo (46.2 percent), Gobert (46.8 percent), Hassan Whiteside (48.9 percent), Joel Embiid (49.7 percent), LaMarcus Aldridge (50.3 percent) and Draymond Green (50.8 percent).
``I think I showed that the NBA is headed toward my style of play,’’ Birch said of his activity and fearlessness to contest shots at the rim. ``It just kind of comes natural to me and I don’t think I’ve changed anything in my game and that helped me this year.’’
Birch, 26, is also quick to point out that first-year Magic coach Steve Clifford helped both him and the team reach their full potential this past season. Orlando made the NBA’s biggest improvement – 17 more wins in 2018-19 than in 2017-18 – by Clifford pushing the team to points it didn’t think it could reach. Clifford often told the Magic about his 2013-14 team in Charlotte that was once eight games under .500 before rallying to a playoff spot that season. Similarly, a Magic team once 20-31 improved from month to month and played its best basketball when it mattered to reach the postseason.
``For the type of team that we have, we needed a coach like (Clifford),’’ Birch said. ``He snapped a reality into us and spoke very straight forward. He spoke a lot of things into existence and we compared a lot to that team he had with the Bobcats. I think we compared a lot to that team, and he spoke it into existence. The same thing that happened to them, happened to us.’’
Birch, a native of Montreal, lived out a lifelong dream in the playoffs when the Magic faced the Toronto Raptors and he had a half-dozen family and friends in attendance. He celebrated with them following Orlando’s somewhat stunning 104-101 Game 1 victory – a game in which Birch contributed six points, seven rebounds and a steal off the Magic bench. Orlando would go on to lose the next four games, but Birch showed what he could do with meaningful minutes. In the season-ending Game 5 loss in Toronto, Birch played a career-best 30 minutes and contributed nine points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and three assists and he averaged 5.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in the five-game series.
``This,’’ Birch said of competing in his first playoff series in his native Canada, ``is my destiny.’’
Now, Birch said it is incumbent on both him and the Magic to get better so that they can push deeper into the playoffs this time next spring. After averaging 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds on 69.9 percent shooting in 23 games after the NBA All-Star break, Birch said he must continue to grow his game.
``Next season basically starts in the summer time. We can’t (slack off) and go down. We’ve got to build off this season to make sure that it carries over to next season,’’ he said. ``Shooting, in the midrange, and being more aggressive (are areas where he wants to improve). That comes with confidence. Sometimes I’m tentative going to the basket or shooting shots, but that will come with building more confidence.’’
While he has confidence that he will play in the NBA next season, Birch isn’t quite sure where he will play. If the Magic make him a qualifying offer, he’ll be a restricted free agent and they will have the right to match any deal offered to him by another NBA squad. If the Magic re-sign Vucevic and feel Bamba is fully recovered and ready for a bigger role, the team could let Birch walk away in free agency.
Birch is hopeful he will return to Orlando, but if things don’t work out, he is confident he will land somewhere else in the NBA. Playing the way that he did this past season and helping the Magic to the playoffs gives him that confidence.
``Hopefully, I come back,’’ Birch said just after the season ended. ``But I’m not really thinking about free agency. I’m just thinking about my family and (how they will be) based on what happens.’’
``I have no idea what will happen, added Birch, who along with his wife welcomed the birth of a daughter in in early January. ``I’ve lived in the countryside of Turkey, so I can live anywhere. My daughter is only a year old, but my wife would be complaining about the weather (if he left Orlando). But, as for me, I can live anywhere.’’
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