Khem Birch has been a surprising offensive spark as this little expansion of his game has helped the Magic grow significantly off the bench.
There was a time last year that Khem Birch would catch the ball on the perimeter and not even look at the basket. Even in the paint sometimes, Khem Birch would be looking for the next pass rather than at the rim. He was not a threat to score.
That made it hard to play him in the long run. The Orlando Magic could not rely on him to give them much more offensively than a strong screen and maybe a few offensive rebounds. Birch was a limited player and he exited the 2020 season feeling the limits of his limited game.
So how would Birch expand his game? How would he make his defensive and screening game more valuable?
To do that, Birch had to become a better offensive player.
He got to work on getting more comfortable on offense.
Birch said during the pandemic hiatus he found his way to a gym to work on his game for workouts three times per day to build confidence in his offense. Birch has come to say he gets on the court now expecting to score not hoping to score.
That is a major mindset shift. Birch has shown a lot more comfort trying to score within his role and it has made him a more valuable asset on the floor.
"“I’m very confident,” Birch said after Monday’s 103-83 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “I don’t go into games hoping I’m going to score. I go into games knowing it’s going to happen. I did a lot of repetition working out three times a day. It’s showing out there. I’m just happy about that.”"
Birch is averaging a career-best 7.1 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game this year. He is taking 5.4 field goal attempts per game this year, after averaging 3.0 per game in the first three seasons of his career. His field goal percentage is down to 50.0-percent, but that is understandable considering the increase in his scoring.
Most centers have usage rates in the 20s because they are getting the ball close to the basket where you assumedly would be shooting. Birch did not clear 15.0-percent until the start of this season. Birch never averaged more than 10.0 field goal attempts per 36 minutes.
He has done this while still doing all the things that made him valuable off the bench.
According to NBA.com’s hustle statistics, Birch accounts for 5.1 screen assists per game, the fifth-most in the entire league. This despite being the only player in the top-18 in that statistic to average fewer than 20 minutes per game.
"“I take pride in it because it gets my teammates going and it gets me going as well,” Birch said before last week’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers. “Sometimes my teammates are open and the big will step up and I’ll be open or vice versa. I really take pride in screening. It’s something I have always done.”"
Birch’s screens account for 11.4 points per game. Many of those are likely coming from Terrence Ross, who loves coming around Birch’s screens and firing an easy jumper. Birch is a big reason for Ross’ fast start this season. It has certainly sprung him some extra room.
Birch has been part of key moments for the Magic so far this year. The team has a +13.5 net rating with Birch on the floor this year, the highest of any full-time rotation player on the Magic to this point in the season.
The team has a 93.8 defensive rating with Birch on the floor.
"“I think Khem in his role is one of the best backups in the NBA,” Nikola Vucevic said after Monday’s win. “He understands his role, he sticks to it. He’s a great roller, great rebounder, great defender. Whatever is asked of him to do, he does it. It’s very easy for everybody to play with him.”"
That is ultimately what matters for Birch and his value. If he has good defensive numbers and improves his rebounding — Birch’s 14.7-percent total rebound rate is second on the team among rotation players and it is a marked improvement from last year when his rebounding took a dip.
The offense is an added bonus, but certainly important for him to stay on the floor.
Birch struggled to find consistent minutes last year. The team played Mohamed Bamba as the backup center for most of the season, and he largely earned that spot. Birch always stayed ready whenever Vucevic or Bamba went down.
And when the Magic did not have Bamba in the Bubble, Birch stepped up in a big way. He was one of the players who clearly benefited from the time in the bubble — 7.4 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game in 18.1 minutes per game in the Seeding Round and 4.8 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game in 17.9 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Of course, Birch is not in there to score.
He is there to do all those little things like screening. Adding the scoring element has only made him more valuable to the team and helped him take a big spot in the rotation.
His 12-point, 12-rebound effort Monday is certainly an outlier. It was a suped-up version of the things Birch has been doing to build a strong start to the season.
If this kind of offensive focus continues, Birch will make that second unit even more potent and make a big difference for the team.