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While the team largely struggled through an unprecedented campaign last season, Toronto Raptors’ fans had plenty of reason to cheer for the personal successes of some of the players. One of those players was Khem Birch, who was picked up mid-season after being bought out by the Orlando Magic.
Birch, born and raised in Montreal, played 17 games for his childhood team and finally made a name for himself after four quiet years in Orlando. As his minutes spiked, so did his stat-line, posting career-highs in just about every major statistical category. The 28 year-old was given the reps and chances to put his skills on display, impressing management and the Raptors’ faithful in the process.
Not only did he announce himself to the league as a reliable NBA big man, he also displayed some flashes in areas we hadn’t quite seen him in before, like shooting from deep and playmaking in the half-court.
After signing a three-year, $20 million-dollar extension in August, expect Birch to figure prominently for Toronto for years to come. While his usage will likely be different this season after the Raptors bolstered their front-court in the off-season, head coach Nick Nurse knows he has someone to turn to for solid defence and a consistent effort level.
As the only out-and-out center on the Raptors roster, Birch is expected to be in the starting five on opening night, barring a trade for a more established player at the position. Toronto’s biggest weakness last season came at the rim, where their shorter front-court struggled to contain most opposing teams’ centers.
Birch, along with six other Raptors, is listed at 6’9. Toronto will have tons of size to work with throughout its lineup; just maybe not where it matters most. While the league is shifting more towards small-ball, the impact that seven-footers can have on the modern NBA, considering the successes of players like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, is considerable. It’s still important to have a big center in your lineup that can come in and dominate the paint.
One of Birch’s most valuable assets is his athleticism, getting him around the court with ease and fluidity on both ends of the floor. On offence, he excels at hovering around the restricted area and cutting to the basket for a timely pass and dunking. On defence, his quick feet keep him in front of most ball-handlers and help him rise to contest and block shots.
It’s clear Nurse will have to stick to a small-ball philosophy; one that Birch seemed pretty comfortable with as he thrived under a new system at the tail end of last season. With a notable lack of consistency and stability at the five last year, Birch’s sound two-way game should partly make up for the team’s lack of size down the middle.
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What to Improve
While Birch has never been the type of player to stretch the floor, the Raptors might yet turn him into a serviceable three-point shooter. In his 17 appearances with Toronto, Birch attempted 31 three-pointers; eight more than he put up in four years with Orlando! He converted nine of those attempts, good for 29 percent. Not bad for a guy who practically never ventured that far from the basket before.
Now that we know he’s capable of stretching the floor, don’t be surprised to see him get more looks from beyond the arc. As a big, his looks from three came almost entirely from the corner; he drained 38.5 percent of his attempts from the right corner, but only 22.7 percent from the left corner.
If he wants to become a bigger factor in the half-court offence, Birch will have to grow as a shooter and become more reliable from long range. If he can average a three-point field goal percentage in the low-30s, his role and offensive contributions will grow considerably.
Like most big men in the NBA, Birch is a below-average free-throw shooter. His 63.6 percent clip with the Raptors was a career-low, while averaging a career-high in free-throw attempts per game. Birch was among the league’s most frequently-used roll men in the pick-and-roll, but his 1.09 points-per-possession was only average in terms of efficiency.
He might not get to the line very often, as he usually has a clear path to the hoop after rolling off of a pick, but it’s important for him to improve his shooting percentage at the line if he wishes to become a more threatening pick-and-roll player.
His career average at the line is 69.4 percent, but if he can get that figure up around the 75 percent mark, he’ll already be contributing more offence in what was a good pick-and-roll setup for the Raptors.