Khem Birch, 6-foot-9 power forward, UNLV
2013-14 stats: 11.5 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 3.8 BPG, .510 FG%
A McDonald’s All-American out of the Massachusetts prep-school ranks, Birch’s college career took an unexpected route, but he enters the draft as one of the more imposing shot-blocking threats available. The native of Montreal, Canada (like fellow UNLV product Joel Anthony, currently of the Boston Celtics and coincidentally a similarily-styled player), who started out at Pittsburgh, remains a raw offensive player, but his athleticism and defensive instincts give him a chance to fill a very specific role in the NBA. After excelling in his final two seasons at UNLV, Birch took a slight gamble on forgoing his final year of eligibility, wagering that his current skill set will be attractive enough to get his foot in the door at the next level.
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Career highlights: After the first 10 games of his freshman campaign, in which he averaged 4.4 points, five rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, Birch transferred from Pitt to UNLV, and following a full calendar year of sitting out, he played the second semester of his sophomore year in Las Vegas, averaging 7.2 points, 3.7 boards and 2.6 blocks a contest, which was enough to garner the Mountain West Conference’s defensive player of the year award. As a junior, Birch demonstrated progress, averaging a double-double — 11.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game; the latter was no small feat with teammate Roscoe Smith snatching 10.9 boards a night himself — and 3.8 blocks each contest, second nationally, which helped him make second team all-conference and earn the league’s top defensive honors again. Birch’s 124 blocks on the season were a UNLV record, he finished his career only two blocks shy of the school’s all-time mark in just two years as a Runnin’ Rebel and his season included 17 double-doubles, high games of 22 rebounds against Nevada, nine blocks against Utah State and performances like 11 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks against Arizona State, 15 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks against Boise State and 16 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks against San Diego State.
Strengths: If it isn’t obvious by now, Birch’s best asset is his shot-blocking ability, utilizing his length, athleticism, timing and quickness for his size to be a game-changing defensive player. Agile enough to switch onto smaller players on the perimeter, it’s easy to project Birch fitting well into NBA help-and-recover schemes. While his offensive is still a work in progress, Birch runs the floor well in transition, can finish above the rim on lobs, crash the offensive glass and score on broken plays, making him a high-percentage scorer.
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Weaknesses: As much as Birch brings to the table on the defensive end of the court, he’s still very much in the developmental stages of being any kind of consistent offensive threat. He lacks both a reliable jumper or post-up game, though his free-throw shooting improved to a semi-respectable level as his career progressed and he also displayed a better overall offensive feel for the game. Even as a specialist, however, Birch must also gain strength, as his frame will allow NBA big men to muscle him on the interior, preventing him from making the necessary impact as a defender and rebounder.
Draft projection: Birch is a second-round prospect, and even with all of the documented holes in his game, it only takes one team to have a specific need for his abilities, be swayed by an impressive workout or believe it can develop the weaknesses in his game for him to be drafted. Regardless of whether or not he’s selected, Birch will have the opportunity to showcase his game in summer league and likely a training camp, and if he showcases a high motor, strong work ethic and some signs of improvement, he will have a good chance of landing on an NBA roster, even if a season mostly spent in the D-League is in the offing. His potential as a impactful defensive specialist is something highly coveted in the league, and if he can turn the corner, show a semblance of scoring ability, Birch could have a very productive career. But even if he doesn’t improve at all, his present-day package will make him a lot of money in upper-echelon overseas basketball.