Playing in Lakeland Helped Sharpen Khem Birch's Skills

By John Denton
Jan. 17, 2018

CLEVELAND – Khem Birch cried tears of joy back in October when he made the Orlando Magic’s opening-night roster and he very well could have been near tears again when he was shuttled back and forth between the G League and the NBA six times this season.

However, instead of pouting and/or doubting, Birch looked at his opportunities to play for the G League’s Lakeland Magic as chances to sharpen his skills, confirm his confidence and broaden his game so that when his NBA shot came along, he’d be ready. Birch, who is known in Magic circles for his first-to-arrive, last-to-leave approach to hard work, must be quite familiar with the old NBA adage that one must ``stay ready so that you don’t have to get ready.’’ He said his work ethic never wavered as he waited 3 ½ months for his shot to show what he could do for the Magic.

``I’m a patient kind of person and I’m grateful to be here, so I’m not trying to rush anything,’’ Birch said of biding his time in the G League and on the Magic’s bench much of this season. ``I know that I’m here for a reason and I knew eventually I was going to get my shot.’’

Birch made the most of that shot on Tuesday and played a major role in Orlando defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves, 108-102. In just 19 minutes on the floor, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound power forward racked up 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots and Orlando was a plus-13 on the scoreboard. Not only did he fill in nicely for veteran center Marreese Speights (out with a personal matter), but he teamed up beautifully with fellow big man Bismack Biyombo (10 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks) to neutralize Minnesota’s impressive frontline.

Birch played so well – one time he spiked a Karl-Anthony Towns shot out of bounds the way a volleyball player might hit a kill shot – that he earned more trust from Magic head coach Frank Vogel. Birch played well enough that he should see time again on Thursday when the Magic (13-31) face the Cavaliers (26-17) in Cleveland. Tristan Thompson, someone who has previously been a teammate of Birch’s before when they played on the Canadian National Team, has given the Magic fits for years, and it will likely be Birch’s job to keep him off the boards on Thursday.

``He played really well and that’s what you ask of your guys when they get an opportunity,’’ Vogel said of Birch. ``I tell them that it’s their job to make me keep them in the lineup and give me no choice but to play them and make my decisions difficult. Khem has certainly done that.’’

For Birch, a native of Montreal who went to high school in Massachusetts and later Texas, Tuesday’s spectacular performance had to feel like it was a long time coming considering all that he had to endure previously. Undrafted in 2014 after completing his college career at UNLV, Birch had to play in the G League in Idaho and then in Turkey and Greece the past two seasons. He made the Magic out of training camp when he showed the team his high basketball IQ on the defensive end of the floor and his ability as a quick-leaping shot blocker.

After chasing his hoop dreams all around the globe, Birch had a somewhat surprising answer when asked on Tuesday what he liked most about playing in the NBA.

``You’re getting paid on time,’’ he said with a chuckle, referring to his mercurial stints in Turkey and Greece. ``Also, being near Canada, your coach speaking English and it’s just a lot of fun. And my teammates, they’re great guys.’’

That was proven yet again on Tuesday when Speights called Birch to let him know that he would be unavailable to play and to give the rookie the scouting report on Minnesota’s Taj Gibson, Gorgui Dieng and Towns. And after he set NBA career highs in every statistical category, Birch’s phone didn’t stop buzzing for hours.

``I got calls from everybody – friends, family and people I haven’t talked to in years. Everybody was talking to me,’’ Birch said. ``(His mother, Wendy Sparks) was very excited. She watches every game we play, regardless of whether I play or not, and my cousins do as well.’’

Vogel has closely watched Birch throughout this season even though he’s used him in just eight games thus far. He’s watched as Birch’s confidence and aggressiveness have soared on an almost daily basis as he’s played games for the Lakeland Magic. Vogel said he’s known since camp in September that Birch ``is an NBA player,’’ and that’s been affirmed by the way that he’s worked and improved.

``It’s night and day what he looks like now as opposed to what it would be if he was just on the end of our bench practicing 15-or-20 minutes a week. What he’s getting down there (in the G League) is invaluable and we saw it on the floor (on Tuesday night).’’

In his 20 games with Lakeland – when he’s averaged 13.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 a game – Birch has been able to experiment with parts of his game that he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to show at the NBA level. Much to his surprise, Lakeland head coach Stan Heath has even run some clear-out plays for him – a first in his professional career – and that has done wonders for his confidence, he said.

Again, Birch approached his G League assignments as opportunities instead of demotions. A resident of downtown Orlando, he’s made the hour-long drive to Lakeland several times this season and he’s made the most of the experience gained in the G League.

``I love it because it gives me confidence,’’ he said of playing in Lakeland. ``I’ll do things in the G League that I won’t do (in the NBA), but that gives me confidence. Like putting the ball on the floor and looking at the hoop. At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t even looking at the basket. Now, I look at the basket because I’ve been doing that stuff in the G League. I’m doing stuff here that I’ve done in the G League and it helps me at the same time.’’

That growth was apparent as soon as he checked into Tuesday’s game. In his first 90 seconds on the floor, Birch snatched two rebounds and got to the free throw line four times (all makes). In less than 10 minutes on the floor in Tuesday’s first half, Birch made his presence felt by repeatedly rolling hard to the rim for 10 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking two shots.

The capper for Birch came in the fourth quarter when he had a dunk off a feed from veteran guard D.J. Augustin in the midst of Orlando’s game-turning 14-4 run.

Said Augustin, a NBA survivor who has had to fight for everything he’s gotten while bouncing around the league: ``I’ve done been in Khem’s situation and that’s what the NBA is all about – getting an opportunity and making the best of it. That’s what he did (on Tuesday).’’

Biyombo, who has played well in place of injured center Nikola Vucevic (broken left hand), faces Birch daily in practice and he knew that the big man could help the Magic on Tuesday with his energy and toughness.

``Every player in the NBA, they’re all here for a purpose and they’re good at what they do. Khem is a great player and he’s capable of doing damage,’’ Biyombo said. ``I’m happy that he came in and played well. I’m excited for him because he’s a hard worker. I come in here first and the first guy who usually shows up is Khem – behind me, of course. … It’s good to see his hard work paying off and now he’s just got to be consistent.’’

Birch was effusive in his praise of his Magic teammates on Tuesday night and he said that Biyombo is a player who he models his game after defensively. He feels that he can give the Magic a strong defensive presence on the inside and he wants there to be no letdown for the team when Biyombo checks out and he checks in.

``I always look at Biz (Biyombo) because I feel like he’s the master at doing the little things. A lot of people think because he doesn’t score 20 (points) that he’s not doing a good job. But he does the little things that if he was on a playoff team, it would be a huge impact,’’ said Birch, who got in extra conditioning work following Tuesday’s game. ``Defense has been my go-to since I started playing basketball, so it’s natural to me.’’

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