Magic Extend Qualifying Offers To Khem Birch & Amile Jefferson

Khem Birch
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Front-office leadership for the Orlando Magic has said repeatedly this offseason that its goal is to keep together the core of a team that finished the season 22-9 and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

On Tuesday, the Magic took several steps to ensure that three key players could be back with the team next season.

The actions taken on Tuesday – picking up the third-year option on Wes Iwundu’s contract and making qualifying contract offers to center Khem Birch and forward Amile Jefferson – could shed some light on the Magic’s aggressive approach in trying to retain future unrestricted free agents Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross. Again, the goal is to try and keep the entire team together as much as possible going forward.

By making qualifying offers to Birch and Jefferson prior to the June 29 deadline, the Magic will have the right to match any contract offers that the two promising big men get from other NBA teams. If Orlando decides against doing that, Birch and Jefferson will be free to sign with other teams.

Vucevic, the Magic’s first all-star in seven seasons, and Ross, the only player in NBA history to hit at least 200 3-pointers without starting a game, will both become unrestricted free agents on June 30 at 6 p.m. Both players are coming off career-best seasons – Vucevic averaged 20.8 points and Ross averaged 15.1 points per game – and Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman has said that both players are major priorities to re-sign this summer.

``Obviously, we’ve stated our desire to bring back (Vucevic) and Terrence and Khem and on July 1 we’ll get busy with that,’’ Weltman said. ``Unrestricted free agency is a wild ride and those guys are good players and there will be lots of teams that will be pursuing them. But I know they like it here and I think they feel a shareholders’ stake in the team, and they want to see it through. We’ll be hopeful that we can get something done, but we’ll see where that goes.

``Obviously, we’ve been spending a lot of time planning, ``if thens’’ … plan A, plan B, plan C. That’s just the nature of free agency,’’ Weltman added. ``But we look forward to July 1 and we’re hoping to attack it.’’

Birch, a 6-foot-9, 233-pound center, played sparingly early in the season, but he filled in admirably after rookie Mo Bamba was lost for the season because of a stress fracture in his left tibia. The way Birch played on both ends of the floor could make him a hot commodity in free agency in July.

Birch, 26, averaged 5.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocked shots in 11 games in February (16.5 minutes a game); 6.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 0.3 blocked shots in 14 games in March (14.4 minutes per game); and 6.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocked shots in five games in April (16.6 minutes per game). The native of Montreal also averaged 5.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in five playoff games against the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors.

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 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (48.6 percent), Portland 7-footer Zach Collins (48.7 percent) and reigning, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (49.7 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 following the end of the Magic’s run in the playoffs. ``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.’’

Jefferson, 26, is a member of the Magic’s Summer League roster that will play in Las Vegas starting on July 5. He played sparingly in 12 NBA games this past season, but he shined in the G League with the Lakeland Magic (18 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game). The 6-foot-9, 222-pound Jefferson was tasked with expanding his offensive repertoire this offseason and he’ll be given a chance to show off his progress in Summer League.

Earlier in the day on Tuesday, the Magic picked up their contractual option on Iwundu, assuring that he will return to the team next season.

The 24-year-old Iwundu became a valuable piece of the Magic’s regular rotation this past season, averaging 5.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 68 regular-season games. Also, among players to contest at least 400 shots during the regular season, the rangy, 6-foot-7 Iwundu ranked first on the Magic and fifth overall in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed at 40.5 percent. That put him in the same company as Antetokounmpo (40.1 percent allowed), Denver’s Torrey Craig (39.8 percent allowed), Toronto’s Most Improved Player award winner Pascal Siakam (39.7 percent allowed) and Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. (39.1 percent allowed).

In five playoff games against the Raptors, Iwundu made six of 18 shots, three of nine 3-pointers and all nine of his free throws.

All of the retainment of players, Weltman stressed, is a part of the Magic’s mission to keep their team from last season as intact as much as possible in an attempt to build momentum off this past season’s success. The Magic retained Iwundu on Tuesday and they took major steps in doing so with Birch and Jefferson. Vucevic and Ross will be the big dominoes to fall starting with the beginning of the NBA’s free-agency courting period on June 30th.

``We would like to bring those players back and build that continuity and continue to build that momentum, and we’re going to try to keep doing that,’’ Weltman said. ``If we’re unable to do that, then that presents other opportunities for guys on our roster that we believe in and we’ll push to whatever path will help us to ultimately get to our goals, which are winning.

``As I’ve said, our first priority is to bring our own guys back,’’ he added. ``But it’s the NBA, it’s free agency and we go where it takes us.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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