Height/Weight: 6'9", 209 lbs
Age: 21 years old
Projected NBA Position: Power forward
Pro Comparison: Poor man's Taj Gibson
Remember when Khem Birch was the next big thing?
A highly touted recruit, Birch headed into his freshman season at Pittsburgh as a potential one-and-done lottery candidate, but he struggled to adjust to the level of play and his team. He suited up in only 10 games before transferring, due primarily to clashes with the coaching staff and his teammates.
UNLV treated him much better.
Though his stock has still dropped rather significantly in accordance with his failure to live up to the hype on the offensive end, he enjoyed a fine 2013-14 season with the Runnin' Rebels. Now, he's leaving school for the NBA, where he'll either be a late second-round pick or become an undrafted free agent hoping to prove all talent evaluators wrong.
Statistics at UNLV
Birch played both center and power forward for the Rebels, but he'll be limited to the 4 throughout his time in the NBA.
Even in small-ball lineups, he doesn't have the physical profile necessary to be the biggest man on the court. While he does stand 6'9" with an impressive 7'1" wingspan, per DraftExpress.com, he's checking in just shy of 210 pounds. That's not going to cut it when he's banging around with the true bigs of the Association, indicating that he'll only be playing power forward.
But that's OK.
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Birch runs the court quite well and is extremely quick on his feet for a 6'9" player. Moving front to back and laterally, he can keep up with even the quickest players at his position, which should greatly aid his defensive transition.
He might not be the strongest player, but he has hops as well. Birch's max vertical leap of 35.5", per NBA.com/Stats, falls in line with good numbers for backcourt prospects, further aiding a player with height and lanky arms.
During his final season, Birch rejected 3.8 shots per game. When you take playing time out of the equation, it was the third time he'd knocked aside at least 4.8 attempts per 40 minutes, which is quite impressive.
Not only did he lead the Mountain West in blocks per contest, but he also finished second in the nation, trailing only Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski, per Sports-Reference.com.
Birch has the size necessary to be a shot-blocker, both in terms of vertical inches and wingspan, but he also has impressive hops and great timing.
His rejections don't all come in one area, either.
He can record blocks in man-to-man situations, sure. But he's also quite adept at leaking over from the weak side and rejecting a post move or turning aside a ball-handler with a contested look that results in a possession-ending play.
Birch averaged 10.2 rebounds per game during his last go-round with the Rebels, and he excelled on the offensive glass once more.
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Only five players in the entire country recorded more offensive boards during the 2013-14 campaign, with Julius Randle (Kentucky) and Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee) the only ones doing so in a major conference.
Birch's athleticism helps him in this area, but so too does his motor, one that can't easily be turned off.
The big man shows explosiveness and timing when attempting to turn missed shots into points, but he's also a hard-nosed rebounder who loves going into traffic and competing for a contested board. He's willing to go above the rim to corral a miss, sure, but he's also willing to get onto the floor if that's what the situation calls for.
Far too often, shot-blockers don't understand proper team defense. They go for every possible rejection, often finding themselves out of position, making poor rotations and being quite susceptible to fakes that get them up in the air.
Birch isn't one of those players.
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Even though he's one of the best shot-blockers in this draft class, he spent his final season at UNLV playing fantastic team defense. Few were better at coming over from the weak side, and his quickness allows him to both close out on mid-range shooters and give hard shows and traps on screens before recovering to his man.
There's a reason he was the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year each of his two seasons at UNLV.
Actually, there are many reasons.
Continuing to focus on his defense, Birch is by no means a perfect player on that less glamorous end of the court.
He struggles making proper decisions in pick-and-roll settings, though his quickness allows him to recover and negate those mistakes on some occasions. He's prone to getting beat in one-on-one situations in the post, and he doesn't have much practice defending perimeter-oriented players.
More concerning, though, is his offense.
Birch rarely scores, and when he does, it's almost always from the confines of the paint. More often than not, it's the result of a putback opportunity, as his post moves are limited and unimpressive. That combination of a flawed jumper and a poor post arsenal is a dangerous one.
At this stage of his career, Birch is simply more of an athlete than a basketball player. He relies on his scrappiness, size and hops rather than always making the right play and developing any sort of finesse game, which will hinder him when he's facing off against stiffer competition than that which was offered to him in the MWC.
Adding strength would help as well.
Birch, regardless of whether he's drafted or picked up as a free agent, isn't going to be spending much time in the NBA as a first-year player.
Right now, he's way too much of an offensive liability, because his tendency to rely on physical tools rather than any sort of finesse isn't going to work out well at the next level. Until he has more go-to post moves, continues honing his developing hook shot and has some semblance of a jumper, it'll be difficult for him to score.
That's the focus in the NBA D-League, even if his rebounding and help defense are already ready for the NBA.
As DraftExpress.com's Kyle Nelson points out, it could take a while for Birch to develop:
With that said, big men do develop at their own pace, so it wouldn't be surprising at all if a team decided to invest a roster spot on him for a few years with an eye on developing him in the D-League, as he does possess some coveted tools that are hard to come by. With continued development and improved fundamentals, Khem Birch could still turn out to be a solid NBA player in time. Just how long that might take, however, remains to be seen.
Let's go with "will still turn out" rather than "could still turn out."
Birch has all the physical tools necessary to excel, and he already has a number of defined skills. Now it's just time for him to shore up the weaknesses.
If he does that, he'll become a solid rotational big, one used when defense and rebounding are the priority.