By John Denton Feb. 12, 2018
CHICAGO – When the Orlando Magic first played in Chicago this season, it was the week before Christmas and center Khem Birch was toiling in the G League while fulfilling one of his seven minor-league assignments.
Birch was with the Magic on Monday when they played at Chicago’s United Center, but it wasn’t the NBA rookie’s first trip inside the building where Michael Jordan’s iconic No. 23 jersey hangs.
Birch, a native of Montreal who went to prep school in Massachusetts, was a McDonald’s High School All-American in 2011 and played in the all-star game at United Center. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound center/forward not only faced some of the best players in the country, but he thrived against several who ultimately made it to the NBA.
``I will have a lot of memories from that night (on Monday). That’s when I was 18 years old and now I’m 25, so it kind of makes me feel old,’’ Birch said with a laugh. ``I had 16 (points), 10 (rebounds) and six (blocks) – a really good game – and I had the long sleeves on that night (under his jersey) and a lot of people were making fun of me because of them. I played with Anthony Davis and against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, (Cody) Zeller and a lot of other good guys on those teams.’’
Birch, who played the past two seasons in Turkey and Greece, has been a big hit this season with the Magic, averaging 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 19 games this season. He had a spectacular night on Jan. 12 against Minnesota, recording 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.
AUGUSTIN’S MILESTONE: Magic point guard D.J. Augustin, a full-time starter now that Elfrid Payton has been traded, considers himself to be something of a NBA survivor considering how he’s been able to have longevity despite often bouncing from team to team.
Now in his 10th NBA season and playing for his eighth franchise, Augustin hit a major milestone on Monday when he played in his 700th NBA game.
``I’ve started before, I’ve been a backup before, I’ve been benched, traded and cut. I’ve been everything, so I know how to handle myself and be ready at all times,’’ Augustin said with pride. ``That’s something I pride myself on – being ready to do whatever I need to do to help my team win.’’
Bismack Biyombo was a NBA rookie in 2011 when Augustin played his final season in Charlotte, the franchise that picked him ninth overall in 2008. Biyombo, who has played in 136 of a possible 137 games with the Magic (one miss because of a NBA suspension), said he learned a lot about professionalism and toughness from Augustin early in his career.
``It’s really cool for him because he’s made a lot of dedication and sacrifices and a lot of games out there playing hurt,’’ Biyombo said. ``I respect people like that. Because there’s not too many guys around the league like that. A little pain and they sit on the sidelines. I’ve known D.J. a long time and if he can get out there and play, he’s going to play – even if he knows he’s going to get his butt whooped because he can’t move so well. I’m excited for him.’’
POINT OF CONTENTION: While having just two point guards on the roster following the trading of Payton might seem like a problem for the Magic, that scenario has actually worked out quite well for Shelvin Mack and Augustin of late. Each of them has played so well in the past two games that head coach Frank Vogel said he’s had problems trying to decide which to play at times.
Augustin had 18 points, nine assists and two 3-pointers, while Mack chipped in nine points and three assists in Thursday’s defeat of the Atlanta Hawks. On Saturday against Milwaukee, the roles were reversed as Mack had season highs in points (19) and assists (10), while Augustin added 11 points, five assists and four rebounds.
In the 10 games prior to Monday in Chicago, Augustin (11.6 ppg., 3.5 apg., 2.6 rpg. and 43.9 field goal percentage) and Mack (10 ppg., 4.5 apg., 3.3 rpg. and 55.1 field goal percentage) have been especially effective in different ways for the Magic.
``That was (Mack’s) best game of the year last game and D.J. has been playing well, so that’s left me in a tough spot sometimes as to who to leave in the game,’’ Vogel said. ``That’s what you want in your position battles – guys to up their play to challenge the other guy and that’s what Shelvin has done. He’s been a different player the last month or so and he’s really given us a big lift.’’
UP NEXT: Who better for the Magic to host on Valentine’s Night than the rival Charlotte Hornets and center Dwight Howard – a target of fan scorn in Orlando for years?
Charlotte has beaten the Magic in each of the last nine meetings – seven of them coming in the previous two seasons and twice this season. The Hornets beat the Magic 120-113 on Oct. 29 and 104-94 on Dec. 4. Point guard Kemba Walker, long a killer of the Magic, has averaged 31 points in those defeats of the Magic this season.
Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in his eight-year stay in Orlando from 2004-12, has enjoyed a solid first season in Charlotte. Howard, who was drafted by the Magic as an 18-year-old, is now 32 and is on his fourth team since splitting with the Magic.
He’s averaged 15.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks a game. In the two games against Orlando, he’s averaged 17 points and 9.0 rebounds while making 51.9 percent of his shots.
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