A the season is approaching the midway point for all teams, Can Ball Ray checks in with the three highly touted McDonald's All Americans and what they are doing these days. If you've been missing it all season, check out what Myck Kabongo, Kyle Wiltjer and Khem Birch are doing up to now right here ...
Do you remember when we started out this new NC-Double-Eh college basketball season there was a record three Canadians selected to the two big All American teams? It seems like ages ago now but about six months past, we were celebrated the fact that Toronto's Myck Kabongo, Montreal's Khem Birch and Portland native and Canadian rooted Kyle Wiltjer were all making history playing in these games on these teams. We, as basketball fans on this side of the border, were all looking forward to an exciting college season with these three players leading the way for the ballooning Canuck contingent.
But the script has played out a little differently, hasn't it.
All three players went to very high level programs (and you should already know which ones they are) but I'm sure that you may have had how the season is going right now a little differently in your mind. With the exception of Kabongo, Wiltjer and Birch are having season that maybe we would not have dreamt of. OK, maybe I exaggerate with Wiltjer since he's on a stacked Kentucky team but I'll get to him in a bit.
Kabongo is playing up to the level that everyone predicted him to thus far, I think. He's been able to step into the role vacated by the recently Drafted Cory Joseph and assumed the lead guard spot for Texas. He's been playing with confidence and despite a couple of games where he was not playing his best shall we say, he's been everything you'd expect to see from a guy with his resume coming into this season. Anyone who finds themselves disappointed with his showing thus far needs to take into account two things: 1) Kabongo is a great penetrator and orchestrator but still needs to work on his jumper at this level and 2) J'Covan Brown is the black hole on offense that the Longhorn's sets run through. Outside of those two key things, Myck had the skill to thrive, the room to grow in Austin and with Coach Barnes' offense geared to run Kabongo should be considered a member of the Association in the next two years.
If you take a look at Wiltjer's situation, it's not as rosy as Kabongo's.
Wiltjer's been the unfortunate recipient, in my opinion, of much fanfare that allowed him the opportunity to play on an incredibly talented Kentucky team. Now I'm not saying that he's not good enough to play at the school because he is. He's probably the most offensively complete freshman big in college. His issue is playing time and there really isn't a whole lot of it to go around in Wildcat country. Aside from the All American Wiltjer, there was the All Americans Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilcrist coming in playing the forward spot not including NBA Lottery Pick-to-be Terrence Jones and returning senior Eloy Vargas playing in the crowded two man frontcourt that Coach Pitino has been employing this season. When you add that Pitino also has a short bench, Kyle minutes are almost non-existent on a given night.
The good news about it is that he's still averaging a respectable 7.1 points and 2.7 rebounds in 15.6 minutes when he does get to play but that seems to happen only in blowout situations and, well, Wiltjer may be the best blowout game player this season. Regardless of this year's playing situation, he should benefit from both playing against Davis and Jones who could be opting to play pro at the end of the year (which they likely will) and since I would expect Kyle to stick around the full four years he should be a focal point of the Kentucky plans in the coming falls, even if Pitino has a rep for recruiting over guys.
So that leaves us with Birch.
Of the three former McDonald's All American, I expected did expect that Birch would have the hardest time adjusting to the college game primarily because he was going to the extremely physical Big East Conference. The Big East has been THE BEST college conference in the last ten years top to bottom (in my humble opinion) and it has made lesser boys men and bigger men boys because it's a constant grind against some of the best basketball teams in the NCAA. Birch is a strong kid but he is high school strong and I really thought that he'd get into conference play before he had adjusted well enough to contribute regularly to Pitt. Well, I was wrong about that since he was an immediate contributor and was starting by game three. He was averaging 4.4 points, 5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 15 minutes of action and was looking like a lock to be a member of the conference All Rookie Team when it was suddenly announced that he was leaving the Panthers.
Huh?!?! A freshman starter is leaving a Top 25 program that he was beginning to play heavy minutes on?
The move itself is not unheard of (though unusual to say the least) but I would never have expected this from Birch at all since all seemed to be going so well. The rumors of "handlers" having swayed him to Pitt as a high school senior that were bubbling beneath the PC "it wasn't the right environment for me" statements also kind of threw me aback a little and are casting a cloud over the situation. He was looking set for the next two years at least and possibly a pro contract at the end of his tour of duty but with this transfer year he has to sit out now and the NCAA prohibiting a third transfer between D1 programs, he's now in a do or die situation. Pitt would have been an excellent place for Birch to grow as a player and a person, just ask Levon Kendall who played under Coach Jamie Dixon for his career. But if it's not for you it's not for you. I just hope that he finds the right school situation for himself to really get his talent out. There are too many stories of Top 100 guys transferring and never being heard from again. The last guy that I recall who was a in a similar situation is former UCLA commit, former Duke Blue Devil, former Villanova Wildcats-turned NAIA player-turned NBL Canada London Lightning starter Taylor King. ‘Nuff said.
As we can see, the three highest rated Canadians coming into the season are having vastly different successes right now. The situations vary from flourishing to floundering and with little exception the outcomes could not have been predicted. In the drama that is the game of basketball, this is a perfect script. I just hope that all this turns for the better for all players.