Khem Birch Might Be Adding New Element to His Game This Season

Birch is One of NBA’s Most Underrated Players
by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - Something new we could see featured in Khem Birch’s game this season is a corner 3-point shot, which he has been spending a ton of time working on. If that is incorporated into his developing offensive repertoire, that will greatly benefit him and give his Orlando Magic teammates more room in the paint to attack.

Entering his fourth season with the Magic, Birch has only attempted two 3-pointers in his NBA career, both misses. The one he took last year came in the final seconds of an early November game’s third quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Stretching the floor will make it easier for him to play next to another big man, like Nikola Vucevic. Last season, right after Jonathan Isaac’s first knee injury in early January, the two started together in Orlando’s frontcourt for 13 games between Jan. 3 and Feb. 6. Defensively, they were fantastic together. During that stretch, the Magic had the NBA’s fifth best defensive rating. Offensively, however, they really struggled, ranking 28th on that side of the court. Much of that had to do with limited space in the paint.

“I’ve been working on my game so I can play with Vooch this season,” Birch said. “Working on the corner threes, so when he gets the ball in the post he can kick out, and also being more aggressive. When I’m on the court, a lot of teams tend to think I’m not a threat. I feel like playing with Vooch, I have to be more of a threat this season and that’s what I’ve been working on this offseason.”

Even without the 3-point shot in his toolbox the last few years, the 6-foot-9, 233-pounder has made a positive impact with his high basketball IQ, defensive versatility, screening and physicality.

At Disney for the 2019-20 season restart during both the seeding games and playoff games combined, Vucevic and Birch were on the court together for 85 offensive possessions and 84 defensive possessions, per Second Spectrum tracking data. In only 33 of those defensive possessions, the opponent made a shot or drew a shooting foul. In the 51 others, the opponent either missed a shot or committed a turnover.

It was in the bubble when Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford realized that when the two are on the floor, it’s best to have Birch guard the fours and Vucevic guard the fives. And then on the other end, Birch would play the five and Vucevic the four.

“Khem Birch is a very versatile player,” Clifford said. “If you go back to last year, three of our best all-around games, wins – Miami at home, the first Philly game at home and game one of the playoffs – to me because I’ve watched. (There’s) not much else to do, you watch the games over and over. Those were our three most intense, 48-minute performances. Those three. He was right in the middle of all three of them. He wasn’t a small part of it. He was right in the middle of all three of them. He’s a very valuable player.”

Clifford is very confident that his team will function well when Birch is on the court. One of the many things he likes about him is that he’s strong and physical enough to defend starting centers.

That was very conspicuous in the Magic’s game against the 76ers on Dec. 27 at Amway Center. There were 15 defensive possessions that night when Birch guarded Embiid, per Second Spectrum. Only two of those possessions did Embiid, a three-time NBA All-Star, attempt a shot. One of them was a miss after Birch prevented Embiid from getting deep low-post position, while the other was a dunk after Birch correctly opted to contest Josh Richardson as he was driving toward the basket. Watch clips of Birch defending Embiid from that night:

Rare for a player his size, Birch has the lateral foot speed to guard perimeter-oriented players. So, in pick-and-roll action, switching is no problem when he is on the floor. He has excellent timing and uses his length to his advantage. Here are examples of the Montreal native denying an opposing guard (Marcus Smart, Tyler Herro and Collin Sexton) from getting a clean shot off in isolation.

The Lakers proved last season that length is very important at each position. The small-ball approach is a fun, innovative strategy, and at times it is effective depending on matchups. But, in the end, the more positional size a team has on the court, the more likely it is they will be able to overpower opponents.

Therefore, expect Birch to get plenty of minutes this season.

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