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2020-2021 Player Review: Khem Birch

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The latest Canadian to don the Raptors uniform, Khem Birch quickly made an impression. Will that be enough for him to secure a multi-year contract with the Toronto Raptors?

This is part of a series of player review from the 2020-21 season. To find the remainder of the series, please click here

It would be an understatement to say the Toronto Raptors – Khem Birch pairing was mutually beneficial. The Raptors had struggled all year long on both ends with Aron Baynes at centre and Birch was limited to playing backup minutes to Nikola Vucevic. In 48 games with Orlando this season, Birch averaged just 5.3 PPG and 5.1 REB in Steve Clifford’s unimaginative and outdated offense (in his 3 years in Orlando, the Magic have never been a top 20 offense in the league). Despite the uninspiring raw numbers, Birch was consistently a high-impact player when given consistent minutes. I wrote last year at the start of the bubble how I would love to see Birch play a role for a legitimate playoff team. And while the Toronto Raptors were far from being a playoff team this season, Khem Birch’s play as a Raptors has definitely turned some heads

Khem Birch as a Raptor

In 19 games for the Raptors, Birch filled the centre void that was missing all year long. Averaging 11.9 PPG,  7.6 REB and 1.2 BLK on 55.6/29.0/63.6 splits, Birch looked like a legitimate starting big in the NBA. Empowered by Nick Nurse, Birch was finally allowed to play with more freedom on the offensive end. Birch had made just 4 3s in 188 games played with the Orlando Magic. He exceeded that mark in just 10 games with the Raptors, finishing with 9 3s made overall in a Raptors uniform. And while Birch was enjoying a career stretch on the offensive end, he continued to be a physical paint presence and rim protector. After months of watching Aron Baynes, Birch’s competency on both sides of the ball was a welcome sight to see.

Improving Finesse & Fluidity

The most surprising part of Birch’s offensive growth as a Raptor was his touch on push shots. As a Raptor, Birch shot a blistering 58.1% on these push shots. The vast majority of these push shots came from PNR sequences, with Birch on the short roll. With the Raptors, Birch saw his PNR roll man frequency jump from 16.9% to 30.7% while maintaining his 1.09 PPP from Orlando.

I definitely don’t expect Birch to continue to shoot nearly 60% on push shots, but the touch he displayed looks legitimate. He’s always been a little raw on the offensive end, opting for powerful, physical finishes in spots where a soft push shot would be more effective, leading to some ill-advised offensive fouls. Now with his much improved push shot though, he’s become a larger threat as a roller to the rim.

Birch also seemed much more comfortable and fluid on the ball as a Toronto Raptor. There were many plays where Birch took opposing bigs off the dribble to the rim, something that rarely happened in Orlando. On this sequence, he freezes Okongwu with a hesitation move and blows by him for the layup. Not something you usually see from your “offensively-limited” centre.

Birch’s handle may never be the most jaw-dropping, but more importantly its semi-functional for a big. Its this handle that allows Birch to make a beeline to the rim on this play, catching Kawhi Leonard of all people out of position.

Birch also flashed some potential as a short roll passer. He’s not a playmaker by any means, but being able to make reads on the fly and make the correct pass consistently would allow Birch to be a lethal roll man in the NBA and add another wrinkle into the Raptors PNR offense.

Defensive Acumen

While Khem Birch’s offensive game has definitely taken strides in the right direction, his defense has always been great. Birch is excellent in the centre’s traditional defensive role of protecting the rim. Among Raptors who played at least 10 games this season, Birch ranked 3rd on the team in DFG% (Defended Field Goal Percentage) from <6ft at 56.8%, behind only Gillespie and OG. Like the majority of bigs in the league, Birch is primarily a drop coverage defender in the PNR. He routinely does a good job of staying attached with his man to deter lob passes while simultaneously playing the ball handler. Birch played the drop perfectly on this PNR against the Knicks and pounced on the layup attempt from Payton.

The drop coverage instincts are on full display as Birch retreats back over to Allen, inviting Garland’s layup attempt, which he promptly swats with his agility and quick feet.  After watching a half-season of Baynes get completely roasted in these coverages, Birch’s effectiveness was an eye-opener.

Birch has also shown flashes of versatility. While drop coverages are still the go to PNR defense in the league (and for good reason, especially over an 82 game stretch where shooting percentages “even out”), the past couple of playoffs have revealed the necessity of defensive versatility, especially at the centre position.  And that’s where Birch’s athleticism comes into play. On the perimeter, Birch’s agility and ability to flip his hips allows him to hold his own against smaller, quicker ball handlers for a few possessions here and there. His agility is nowhere close to someone like Pascal Siakam, but I would argue its better than Gasol and Ibaka, two bigs that were extremely successful in the Raptors defensive schemes. As a result, he can make some big defensive stops when switched onto guards/wings in the PNR.

 

 

Another instance where Birch does a great job containing dribble penetration on the perimeter. Birch shuffles his feet the whole way, forcing Beal to go wide and erases the reverse layup attempt. Against an offensive talent like Beal, doing this is far from an easy task.

While the defensive versatility is a nice asset, Birch does often struggle with extremely physical and strong bigs. Here, Lopez just seals Birch way too deep in the paint off of a very slow spin. While these type of bruisers are few and far between in today’s NBA, Birch can be physically overwhelmed by them in 1v1 matchups.

 

Next Season?

As an unrestricted free agent, Khem Birch can decide where he goes next in his NBA career. With his current skillset on offense and positive impact on the defensive end, Birch is at the very least a very good back-up big. If he can improve his jumpshot this offseason and continue to be effective with his push shots, Birch can become a legitimate starting centre on a playoff team. Regardless of how things shake out in the offseason for the Raptors, I certainly would want to see Birch return on an affordable Boucher-type contract as a starter or reserve.

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