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Player Preview: Khem Birch, a steadying force in a chaotic lineup

Perhaps the perfect centre for this roster, Birch’s growth in Nick Nurse’s system and recovery from COVID-19 will go a long way in measuring the team’s success.

Los Angeles Clippers v Toronto Raptors

Zan Tabak. Loren Woods. Jelani McCoy. Hakeem Olajuwon. Aron Baynes.

Khem Birch has all of 19 Toronto Raptors games under his belt, but is already a better player than the Opening Day starting centre in eight of the franchise’s 26 seasons (Tabak x3; McCoy x2)! Sean Woodley’s annual Ranking Every Raptor list would agree.

Before joining Toronto, Birch was viewed fondly as one of those free agent targets that would be nice to see in a Raptors uniform but not necessarily the player you’d break the bank for or prioritize above bigger, younger, more exciting prospects. His time with Orlando was inconsistent, at best, due mostly to a lack of opportunity with the Magic. He was buried on the bench behind Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo, and Mo Bamba over his 3.5 seasons. You’d think his time would have come after trading Vucevic at last year’s deadline. However, the Magic pivoted to a youth movement, handing the keys to Bamba, Wendell Carter, and Mo Wagner, and ultimately waived Birch.

The news had barely hit the newswire before Toronto pounced.

Outside of when Jeremy Lin was plucked off waivers during the championship season, I can’t think of a signing that was met with such praise and excitement. Whenever a player is waived or hits the trading block, it’s natural to envision that player in a Raptors uniform. As we’ve painfully learned over these 26 seasons, it’s rare for those wishes to come true. With Birch, it was a dream that became reality for both player and franchise!

To say he’s had a positive impact would be a gross understatement. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors were +8.5 points per possession better with Birch on the floor (95th percentile), shot +4.4% more effectively (97th percentile in eFG%), and turned the ball over considerably less, -3.6% (98th percentile).

After being signed but under-utilized in Orlando, then picked up by a lottery team in Toronto, no one would fault Birch for taking advantage of his strong play with the Raptors and using free agency to choose his next NBA destination. Those concerns were quickly put to bed, though. He’s a proud Canadian who’s happy to be home and playing for the nation’s only team.

Birch is now part of a small but growing contingent of Canadian Raptors past and present, among them Chris Boucher, Jamaal Magloire, Cory Joseph, Anthony Bennett, Oshae Brissett and rookie Dalano Banton. It wouldn’t take much for Birch to top Joseph’s record for most points by a Canadian on opening day (6 points).

With all these good vibes, why is no one talking about Khem Birch?

Let me count the ways: Fred VanVleet’s emergence as the team’s new leader; OG Anunoby’s continued rise to stardom; Pascal Siakam’s recovery and quest to return to All-NBA form; Scottie Barnes’ Rookie of the Year campaign; Precious Achiuwa as Kenneth Faried 2.0; Goran Dragic and everything that happens between now and the trade deadline; the battle for the final roster spots (still a hot topic as of this writing).

It also doesn’t help that Birch missed half the pre-season schedule after he and his family tested positive for COVID-19.

The “what have you done for me lately” sentiment has never been more apt than it is for Birch. How easily it’s forgotten, amidst all that’s happened since last season, how impactful Birch was on both ends of the floor.

One glaring hole Khem immediately filled was his strong ability as a finisher in the pick-and-roll. Birch ranked 10th in the NBA last season in points per possession as a Roll Man (1.09), with at least 30% frequency. The departure of Kyle Lowry shouldn’t have much impact since they only played seven games together. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Toronto’s half-court offense will struggle this year. Having someone you can trust to finish one of basketball’s basic plays is a huge step in the right direction.

The domino effect of Birch’s finishing is that he should be able to draw more fouls. Before last season, Toronto had at least one starter ranked in the 88th percentile or better in foul drawing. From DeMar DeRozan to Kawhi Leonard to Lowry, the Raptors could always count on getting some freebies from the charity stripe. That streak ended last season as players made the not-so-subtle move to preserving their bodies and accepting the tank. During his three full seasons in Orlando, Birch never ranked lower than the 95th percentile in foul drawing. He provides a beacon of hope for a team starving for free points.

Birch’s foul-drawing wasn’t only a positive at the offensive end. He was above-average in foul percentage (defensive fouls committed per team play), ranking in the 76th percentile among bigs. For comparison purposes, Toronto’s other bigs last season were all horrible with fouls: Aron Baynes (34th percentile), Freddie Gillespie (27th percentile), and Chris Boucher (21st percentile). Khem’s relatively low percentage should also trend in a better direction as he continues getting comfortable with Nick Nurse’s defensive switching philosophy.

A strong defensive profile wouldn’t be complete if rebounding wasn’t discussed. On the defensive end, opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage decreased by 5.7% (99th percentile) when Birch was on the floor. Hold on a second. So, Khem Birch prevented opponents from corralling offensive boards, kept fouls to a minimum, and still played excellent defense while learning Nick Nurse’s intricate, all-out-switching defense? No wonder he ranked 3rd on the team’s defensive RAPTOR.

Granted, it may take some time for Birch to fully recover from COVID-19, but what he’s already shown in his short time as a Raptor is a promising sign for him and the team. His offensive game will help steady the half-court ship, while his defensive flexibility adds stability as his teammates wreak havoc and cause turnovers. It may not take long for Birch to climb Woodley’s chart and rank among the best centres to ever don a Raptors uniform!