Orlando Magic center Khem Birch is never afraid to be himself

Khem Birch is not apologizing for playing for Canada, for expanding his game or for being himself on the basketball court.

Canada was struggling early on. Their shooting was not getting them very far and Senegal’s big men were repelling everything in the paint. Khem Birch was a workhorse on the glass but struggled to finish over length.

Canada already knew it was not moving onto the second round of the FIBA World Cup, but there was still plenty to play for. Teams are competing for their placement in the classification round (everyone will play at least two additional games) and the potential to earn berths in Olympic qualifying tournaments next summer.

They had to pick up steam.

Slowly they turned to their NBA players to get them going. Cory Joseph started attacking off the dribble, using hard screens from Khem Birch to spring free. This, of course, also sprung Birch free.

As Senegal tried its best to corral Joseph, Birch started to get space running down the lane. There were open spaces for him and he could power home dunks with ease.

That and the transition opportunities Birch took advantage of were him at his best offensively. But he was still working his best in the tight spaces defensively. How he had to squeeze out rebounds in traffic and sky-high to get them. Or how he would block shots and repel Senegal at the rim.

This is the essence of Khem Birch. This is who Birch is.

His stat line was a bit lopsided in Canada’s 82-60 win on Thursday. Birch scored six points (on 2-for-8 shooting), grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked three shots and added three steals. That is a strange stat line for anyone. A big man who is showing more mobility and craftiness on the block and is able to gobble up rebounds and protect the rim, who still struggles to finish offensively.

It is hard not to notice and not to appreciate Birch’s grit. And he did take two 3-pointers as he continues to try to expand his offensive game.

Canada certainly appreciates it as he has been a consistent defensive presence for Canada throughout their World Cup run.

Canada was slated to have a big run through the World Cup this year as much of their NBA talent started to come into their own. But only Joseph and Birch decided to make the trip to China. Whether it was injury or personal choice, this was not Canada’s year. And the Olympics are slowly getting away from them too.

That is not for lack of trying on Birch’s part. H ehas hustled and worked hard as he always does. It has not been the prettiest numbers for him — or for Canada. But Birch is always going to do his own thing and be unapologetic for it.

Birch was going to be here to represent his country and show all that he could do.

“I let Khem Birch dictate what he wants to do and Khem Birch decided to play for his country because I want to go to the Olympics,” Khem Birch told Lori Ewing of The Canadian Press. “Regardless of whether I was fourth string, fifth string, third string I was going to come here and represent my country.”

And, yes, Birch refers to himself in the third person. Something he apparently did multiple times in the interview.

You have to love that boldness from him. Something the Orlando Magic do not really see.

Birch has always been willing to walk to the beat of his own drummer. He has always been willing to take a risk on himself and take advantage of whatever opportunity he is given.

Birch had carved out a strong career in Turkey where he was one of the top players in Euroleague. But he wanted to be back in the U.S. and accepted a contract withthe Magic without much promise he would play.

Birch did not enter the rotation until mid-season, but proved his worth, quickly becoming a fan favorite for his hustle and his determination.

He would have to do the same thing last year though with the team drafting Mohamed Bamba. Khem Birch played behind Mohamed Bamba the entire season until Bamba’s injury. And Birch entering the fray again helped turn the Magic’s defense around.

Birch is again fighting for his spot in the rotation after signing a fresh two-year deal with the Magic. It would have been easier to find another spot and a clearer path to minutes. Maybe that opportunity did not present itself.

But Birch is going to do what he feels is best and not apologize for it.

Khem Birch was happy to play for Nick Nurse and get the opportunity and freedom to expand his game. He is not afraid to shoot from the outside — although he has yet to make a 3-pointer.

And Birch still struggles to catch the ball in traffic and finish over taller defenders or under pressure. He is better running to the rim in transition and staying solid defensively as a shot-blocker and rebounder.

That has all been on display at the World Cup. And Birch is not afraid to go out there and do his thing.

In other FIBA action

Nikola Vucevic scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds, making three of his four shots, in 13 minutes for Montenegro in an 84-73 loss to Brazil.

It is not particularly clear why Nikola Vucevic played so few minutes — all of Montenegro’s guards played their full minutes — but Montenegro is eliminated from the World Cup and likely has little to play for in classification to make an Olympic tournament. A rest day or a lighter day might be in order as Montenegro prepares for the classification round.

Evan Fournier also had a lighter day. He scored 10 points, dished out five assists and had three steals in roughly 20 minutes of action in France’s 90-56 win over the Dominican Republic. France has advanced to the second round of the FIBA World Cup.

The United States also secured their spot in the second round with a dominant 98-45 win over Japan. They will play Greece in the second round.