Having a good roll man is a little bit like having good gut health. You don’t really notice it all the time, but everything else works well as a result. The Toronto Raptors have gone a long time without an elite roll man. Even for the championship team, Marc Gasol rarely rolled out of the pick and roll, and Serge Ibaka was consistent and reliable, though never above average even among high-volume rollers. Aron Baynes was anemic. The most efficient option Toronto has had recently was Chris Boucher, who was very good, but whom Nurse decided against playing center for too many minutes a game due to other issues. It’s likely that Boucher will still run pick and rolls now and then, but he won’t be Toronto’s primary screen setter for the majority of games.
This season, Khem Birch should be Toronto’s roller for the lion’s share of possessions. During his brief tenure in Toronto last season, he reached the same efficiency as Ibaka, 1.09 points per possession, meaning he was solid but far from exceptional. Toronto will hope for more than solid this season.
There are some indications that Birch will improve this year. His usage rate in the pick and roll doubled from Orlando to Toronto in 2020-21, and he shot far more often and better once he reached the North. His role changed dramatically over a short time, and it’s reasonable to expect that once he’s more accustomed to it, he’ll perform better in his new role.
But Birch’s shot preferences are fairly unique for a roller. Out of the pick and roll he’s almost twice as likely to take a shot in the non-restricted-area paint than the restricted area, as he loves to turn to his little flip shots and floaters. Those are good looks for him, as he shot 58 percent (!) from the short midrange, according to Cleaning the Glass. That he’ll continue to be in the 93rd percentile from that distance is a question he’ll need to prove, as he’s never been nearly as accurate there during his previous career. He does have a good quick release on his push shot, and he’s fairly accurate with it.
Even more impressive from Birch, those shots don’t always have to be created by others. He’s solid at popping after the screen, catching, and driving to create his own shot from the short midrange. He’s still not a good shooter — he shot 29.0 percent from deep in Toronto — so having a solid-for-a-center driving game is important for him. That means he can still be effective whether popping or rolling even without a dependable jumper (although cleaning up his shot from the corners would certainly be significant). He makes quick decisions and can turn the corner on defenders who overplay his handoffs or don’t respect his offensive game.
Still, a roller taking a shot near the rim is supposed to be the best shot in basketball. Layups remain the most efficient shots in the game, and rollers are generally among the most efficient at making layups. Toronto has lacked a player who can convert those points automatically since, more or less, Jonas Valanciunas. And even though Birch is solid from six feet away from the rim, those shots aren’t automatic. They’re a good result but not a great one. And Toronto needs to find great results at the rim more often. When Birch does have deep catches or open lanes to the rim, he has not proven to be fantastic at converting them. It can take him a moment gather his bearings in a crowd, and he doesn’t always recognize open lanes, sometimes preferring to settle for push shots when a hard dribble would create a dunk. It’s a work in progress for a player who has never had such a large role before, but he’s shown a nascent ability to thrive in the pick and roll, and if he adds more shots directly under the rim, he’d likely become a better roller than Toronto has rostered in years.
If VanVleet improves at hitting the roller deep in the paint, that would be important for Birch finding easier shots, too; without Lowry, it’ll be hard for Birch to find shots directly under the rim this season. There’s a chance Birch has some slippage because of Lowry’s departure.
Birch has proven to be a solid passer, able to read defenses and hit his teammate off of whom a doubler is rotating. However, he doesn’t pass ahead of the defense and create high-calorie shots that way. He’s not going to create too many big-to-big layups, and even though he prefers to short roll, it’s generally to score. His passing, similar to his finishing, is along the lines of an Ibaka (who became a fairly solid passer by the end of his time in Toronto). His passing, like his finishing, is good but not value-added. He’s not going to be an offensive hub, like a Marc Gasol, and he’s never had better-than-average assist rate for a center.
Interestingly, Birch’s time in Toronto was the first in his career that he wasn’t an elite foul-drawer. If he gets back to drawing fouls on almost a quarter of his shot attempts, even though he has never shot 70 percent from the line in his career, his ability to create free throws would constitute those value-added contributions on the offense end that Toronto needs. He has excellent body control when he’s taking contact, and he does a great job not jumping away from defenders or otherwise adapting his movement to either not draw fouls or make his shots less likely to go in. He’s not great at finishing through contact, but that’s similarly something that ought to come with more reps as a starting center.
There are paths to Birch becoming the best roller Toronto has had since Valanciunas. But to get there, Birch has a number of questions he has to answer, specifically in terms of the sustainability of his short midrange accuracy. He has to up his frequency around the rim, get back to drawing more fouls, and become a better passer, particularly in situations when he pops or short rolls and can create layups rather than jumpers for his teammates. That’s a lot to ask. But the foundation is there, and Birch was already solid. Now it’s just building on his skills rather than creating them out of thin air.
The Raptors still may not have ideal gut health next season. There will be moments of frustration, irritation, and constipation. But Birch has the chance to grow. Eventually, Birch’s contributions in the pick and roll may go down as smoothly as a nice bowl of yogurt.