Khem Birch shines in his first real NBA opportunity

Khem Birch has waited his turn on the Orlando Magic bench for half the season. He stepped in Tuesday and shined, earning more opportunity.

Khem Birch has been a professional basketball player for several years, playing in big games in Euroleague and making an impact. He is not the typical rookie play.

He admitted he still had butterflies as the moment came Tuesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Marreese Speights texted Khem Birch shortly after shootaround with some extra notes on the scouting report on the Timberwolves’ bevy of bigs. But Marreese Speights gave his confidence to Khem Birch. And Birch had his teammate’s back.

It was going to be a tough challenge.

One Birch has been waiting on. One Orlando Magic fans have waited on for some time. And one coach Frank Vogel knew was going to come and that his young big man would be ready for.

It was not a complete surprise that Birch was active and constantly hounding the ball and going for rebounds and blocked shots. That is what he showed in the preseason when everyone seemed to get excited about his potential. Those were the kinds of things he was doing in the G-League for the Lakeland Magic too.

In his first meaningful minutes in a NBA uniform, Birch delivered.

“From the day Khem Birch stepped into our building and had his first training camp practice, I knew he was ready for hits,” Vogel said. “He is a NBA player, not a G-League player. He is staying sharp down there and learning and developing down there. He is a terrific player. He plays that role well — the rolling big, shot blocking and offensive rebound crasher. No surprise that he had a strong performance tonight. We should see that going forward.”

Entering Tuesday’s game, Birch had played in just 21 minutes, scoring a total of eight points and five rebounds. There just was not much time for him behind Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo and Marreese Speights.

What everyone knew about him they could only glean from his stats with the Lakeland Magic in the G-League –13.9 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game in 20 appearances. He is a hard worker who picks up scraps offensively but defends at a high level. Just watching him at Olympiacos was enough to tell anyone he could play if given the chance.

Before Tuesday’s game, Birch had not even logged 10 minutes in a single NBA game. The only time he played meaningful minutes was a seven-minute stint against the Houston Rockets.

Asking Magic players and coaches, they were not surprised Birch burst onto the scene with his first real opportunity. They had seen him working in practice and coming to the gym early while he was with them.

With Speights out of the lineup, Birch had to step in. He was going to get those minutes and he was sure to take advantage of them. Birch recorded a double-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.

“When you play limited minutes, you have to go as hard as you can,” Birch said. “You don’t want to mess up the opportunity. Playing hard helps a lot.”

That has always been part of his game. And it was easy to see just how hard Birch was playing from the moment he stepped in. That has always been apparent whenever Birch gets in. He flies around the ball and toward the basket, always getting involved with rebounds and putbacks near the basket.

If anything, the problem with Birch was finding some control. As any young player does, Birch sometimes is a bit too fast and all over the place. But Birch displayed Tuesday just how much the game had slowed down.

To me, his best defensive play was not one of his four blocks. It was instead when he held his ground with his arms raised vertically as Karl-Anthony Towns tried to drive the lane. Towns met a brick wall and threw up an appropriate brick in response.

Those are the solid plays Birch was making. Something that has grown thanks to his time with the Magic and in the G-League, preparing him for this moment.

“I’m a patient kind of person,” Birch said. “I’m just grateful to be here. I’m not trying to rush things. I’m here for a reason. I knew it was eventually going to come.

“I’m definitely a better player from September to now,” Birch added. “Yesterday was one game. I’m still a rookie. There is still a learning curve.”

Birch credited his teammates above everything else for keeping him comfortable on the floor. Birch is not someone who will get his number called on offense very much. He said Stan Heath with Lakeland was the first coach ever to call any isos for him.

He was just there to add energy and make his teammates look good. Time and time again he did.

But that will be the next question for Birch and the Magic. Will he get the opportunity again?

Speights was back at practice after missing Tuesday’s game for personal reasons. It is unclear what direction Vogel will go with his rotation.

The indications from him are that he will stick with Birch. He said it is Birch’s responsibility when he gets that opportunity to make the coach make a difficult decision. Birch did that by all accounts.

“He played really well,” Vogel said. “That’s what you ask of your guys. When you get an opportunity, now it’s your job to make sure I keep you in the lineup. Don’t give me any choice or make my decisions difficult. He certainly has done that. He has earned another opportunity.”

Everyone is understandably excited about what Birch can do. His brand of defensive energy is seemingly exactly what the Magic need.

But, as he said, he is under no illusion that this is permanent. He has to go out and do it again. Something else that is new that he has never done.

That opportunity is almost certainly coming for Birch though. It has been something seemingly overdue and now earned.

He will get his chance to shine once again.