When you think of Orlando Magic centers, the first name that comes to mind has to be All-Star Nikola Vucevic. The next one to pop up is Mohamed Bamba, the 2018 lottery pick out of the University of Texas. It’s almost guaranteed that you didn’t think of backup center Khem Birch though – but it’s okay, he’s used to it.
The 28-year-old big man has taken the long road, full of highs and lows, to get in the position that he is today.
Born in Montreal, Canada, Birch and his mother knew that he needed to be in the United States to get more exposure and be recruited. He then ended up in Massachusetts at the Winchendon School and Notre Dame Prep, which has birthed the careers of Steven Adams and Michael Beasley among others. His play in high school was enough to earn him a spot in the 2011 McDonalds All-American Game with future superstars Anthony Davis and Bradley Beal.
Birch then went on to play for Pittsburgh but pivoted during his freshman year and made the transfer to the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Birch cited that a change in scheme led to his transfer in an article with SB Nation – but he also believed he was not treated the same as a top recruit, and the other players felt threatened by him.
Both seasons at UNLV saw Birch garner Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors, but it was his second year that he earned a larger role and flashed his NBA potential. His draft stock took a hit though since UNLV missed the NCAA tournament during his final season. In 33 games, he averaged 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game.
Naturally, Birch would then declare for the 2014 NBA Draft.
That night, Birch ultimately went undrafted. But in an interview with NBA.com’s John Denton, he was not going to let this deter him.
“People had told me I was not ready and not getting drafted proved them right,” Birch said at the time. “But I’m a patient guy and someone who doesn’t want to rush things. I just know that now they can’t tell me I’m not ready.”
Birch would go on to bounce around on multiple team’s summer league rosters and play for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, a Miami HEAT G League affiliate. In his time with the Skyforce, he earned All-Star, All-Defensive First Team and All-Rookie Team nominations. Despite all of the accolades, Birch would then take his talents overseas and suit up for Usak Sportif, a team in Turkey’s Basketball Super League. Later, the center earned himself a contract with Olympiacos, a Greek professional team.
After leading Olympiacos to the championship game, Birch received a training camp offer from the Magic. In his first season for Orlando, he featured for the Magic’s G League affiliate in Lakeland, Florida before cementing his place with the NBA squad.
Nowadays, Birch has played a huge role with the playoff-hopeful franchise and has received praise for the improvements he has made to his game.
“Khem Birch is not just good now,” head coach Steve Clifford told The Athletic, “Khem Birch is having a terrific year.”
Despite some COVID-related issues for the talented Bamba, Birch’s elevated play has helped him jump ahead in the rotation permanently. Even Vucevic also had high praise for his frontcourt teammate.
“I think Khem, in his role, is one of the best backups in the NBA,” Vucevic said. “He understands his role. He sticks to it. He never steps out of it. He’s a great roller, great rebounder, great defender.
Whatever is asked of him to do, he does it. So it’s very easy for everybody to play with him on the second unit out there.”
Birch’s numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but his impact on the floor makes him stand out. Well-utilized as a defender around the rim, Birch often steps in to make game-changing blocks most nights. He’s a great screen-and-roll player and can muscle his way to the rim with ease. But Birch’s attitude and desire to do the dirty work shines most brightly.
Extending possessions and grabbing important rebounds are his forte – always willing to do the small things, a trait every successful franchise needs more of. Currently, he’s 11th in the NBA with an offensive rebounding percentage of 12.8 percent, while not starting a single game this season, per Basketball-Reference. Elsewhere, the center is also 15th in offensive rebounds per game with 2.7. Birch’s tenacity on the boards and ability to make the smart play is a big reason why the Magic are in the playoff hunt despite injuries to pretty much every guard on the roster.
By now, he’s certainly prolonged his NBA career at this point, all so long after he was a written-off as a top recruit out of high school. This season Birch is averaging 6.8 points with 6.1 rebounds in just 21.5 minutes per game – but his averages are not the best indicator of his success.
Moving forward, keep an eye out for how things continue to unravel in the Magic frontcourt as fans demand more playing time for Mo Bamba. Orlando continues on the road to another playoff berth, but that’s in large part due to the heart and work ethic of one of the league’s best lesser-known role-players, Khem Birch.
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