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French Connection: Chris Boucher and Khem Birch could make a lasting impact on Raptors and Canadian Basketball

Nine years ago, two teenagers with hoop dreams crossed paths for the first time on the basketball court. It wasn’t necessarily a memorable experience for either, but some friendly competition nonetheless. The two connected on growing up in the same city, but after the game, they went their separate ways – for the time being.

This is where the story for Chris Boucher and Khem Birch begins.

The two were born 105 days apart; however, Boucher was born in the Caribbean country of St. Lucia before relocating to Saint-Michel (a northern area of Montreal) at age five. Birch was born on the west end of Montreal near Pointe-Claire, and lived in the area before relocating to Fitchburg, Massachusetts to prepare for a collegiate basketball career.

Around the time the two first met, Khem was in his freshman year with the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, and Chris had just re-entered the high school AAU circuit after briefly dropping out of high school, battling homelessness and poverty along his road to redemption.

Boucher would reclaim his life, journeying through three different colleges before landing a two-way contract with the Golden State Warriors, and eventually signing with the Toronto Raptors in 2018. He would go on to become the NBA G League’s first-ever player to win both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player, and has since become a valued member of the Raptors’ rotation.

Birch transferred to UNLV after two years with the Panthers, and after going undrafted, spent a season in the NBA D-League, as it was then known, before moving to Europe for two years. Khem played one year in Turkey, then one year in Greece – where he met his future wife. He finally realized his NBA dream when he landed a contract with the Orlando Magic in 2017, and spent three and a half years with the organization.

Seven years after their first encounter, Boucher and Birch would meet again – where they would make history for Montrealers by becoming the first two from the area to face off against each other in a playoff series. Since both have become mainstays in the NBA, they reconnected and became friends. They represent Montreal proudly in the NBA as two of the three active players from the city, along with Oklahoma City’s Lu Dort.

Now, with Birch having joined the Raptors two weeks ago, the next chapter of their story begins – where the two will write their own history as a Canadian duo on the Raptors, and potentially affect great change in the growth of Canadian basketball.

With Boucher and Birch now teamed up, the list of Canadian duos in the NBA grows to four:

PlayersTeam
Chris Boucher, Khem BirchToronto Raptors
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz DortOklahoma City Thunder
Brandon Clarke, Dillon BrooksMemphis Grizzlies
Andrew Wiggins, Mychal MulderGolden State Warriors
A full list of current Canadian teammates in the NBA, as of April 2021.

Not only will they be critical to the success of the Toronto Raptors, but the two will be playing together for the Canada Basketball team this summer, under – another familiar face – Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

With the enormous platform they now have, they have the opportunity to inspire the next generation of Canadian ballers; be it kids from their hometown of Montreal who will believe they have a chance to make it, young fans from Toronto who witness Canadians on their team, or across the entire nation as they hope to play a role in bringing Canada to the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

With both the Raptors and Canada Basketball, Boucher and Birch currently project to be primary big men off the bench, which means that not only are they on the same teams, but they will likely share a lot of minutes on the court together. Given the chemistry they have already built together, playing all their minutes together year-round should be instantly successful.

They have played just 81 minutes together across six games for the Raptors so far, with the sample size being limited due to Chris Boucher suffering a sprained MCL. However, in those minutes, the duo has a plus-8.4 net rating, and their playing styles fit well together on the court, leading many to believe that should Birch re-sign next season as expected at this point, the Raptors will have a stout bench frontcourt.

While Boucher has enjoyed a breakout year with the team, Birch has really come on strong since arriving on the scene. He is averaging 9.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, well up from his averages earlier in the year with Orlando, where he averaged 5.3 points and 5.1 rebounds, respectively. The offensive efficiency has also dramatically increased, with Birch improving his true shooting percentage by ten full percentage points, and he is thriving in Nick Nurse’s faster pace.

While Boucher is a bouncy speedster who loves to play out on the perimeter, Birch works more on the interior. He is working to add range to his game – with the Raptors, he is 5-of-12 from beyond the arc thus far – but his deceivingly quick first step combined with the smoothness to his game allows him to slip by defenders and score efficiently at the rim. Both are quite athletic and can cover lots of ground defensively between the two of them, and with Nurse coaching them year round, it should help them learn each other’s spots and play cohesively.

For kids across the country, the perception of Canadian basketball is turning. The league’s representation is as high as it’s ever been, there is more top-end talent around the league than ever too, with budding young stars such as RJ Barrett and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who have taken massive strides forward this season.

For two guys who grew up a 25-minute drive away from each other, who used to go at it in scrimmages and train together, this is a dream come true. To everyone else watching them, it’s an inspiration that kids from Canada, and Montreal in particular, can represent their country proudly.

And make no mistake; Montreal has serious basketball talent, and the representation of three players it currently has will undoubtedly grow. While it feels like the town has always been run by Montreal Canadiens fans, there is a large heart that beats for basketball too – Boucher and Birch have personified that as their journeys have led them back here to Canada’s two teams.

The story doesn’t simply end here. In fact, their tale is just beginning, and a potentially important milestone in Canadian basketball history is yet to be written.

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