Toronto Raptors: Khem Birch could earn role on Canadian national team

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 15: Khem Birch of Canada Basketball (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 15: Khem Birch of Canada Basketball (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images) /

Although the Toronto Raptors missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, it looks as though at least two members of the organization may have a busy summer ahead. With the announcement of 21 players invited to Canada Basketball’s mid-June training camp, we know that center Khem Birch will join head coach Nick Nurse back among familiar surroundings.

The Montreal native, who joined the Raptors in April after being waived by the Orlando Magic, previously represented Canada at the 2016 FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in Manila.

There might have been even more Raptor representation in camp, but Chris Boucher reportedly declined an invitation to focus on rehabbing his sprained knee. Former Raps set to attend the tryout include Cory Joseph, Oshae Brissett, and Anthony Bennett.

There’s a lot that remains uncertain ahead of the upcoming FIBA Olympic qualifier in Victoria, BC starting on June 29. While some of that uncertainty exists entirely outside the power of the national team, Nurse and the Team Canada brain trust will also have their own decisions to make, which could shape Birch’s role in Victoria and beyond.

Who will Toronto Raptors center Khem Birch play alongside?

One curious thing about the invite list was how many players seem to be in situations that have historically led to passing on national team duty. The NBA playoffs will eventually conflict with the camp in Tampa, so players like RJ Barrett (New York Knicks), Tristan Thompson (Boston Celtics), Dillon Brooks, and Brandon Clarke (Memphis Grizzlies) may be unavailable.

On top of that, you also have a lengthy list of players without contracts for next season, which could make the prospect of international play particularly risky. None of Brissett, Joseph, Thompson, Kelly Olynyk, Trey Lyles, or Mychal Mulder have full guarantees for next season.

Then again, neither does Birch, who will be looking to prove himself to Nurse as both a candidate for Canada’s frontcourt and Toronto’s rotation next season.

Optimistically, perhaps this is a different era of Canadian basketball, where the country’s deep pool of talent has sparked Olympic hopes and inspired players to emphasize national pride ahead of business-minded self-preservation. Or are Nurse, Canada Basketball CEO Glen Grunwald, and GM Rowan Barrett setting themselves up for disappointment as players back out?

Khem Birch has some competition.

Assuming that everyone on the announced invite list arrives in Tampa ready to play on June 16, it would be great news for Nurse, but would represent a tougher path to significant minutes for Birch. It doesn’t help that Canada is littered with similarly active, physical big men possessing limited offensive games.

Olynyk should effectively be a frontcourt lock, which may leave just three open spots for bigs on what will have to be whittled down to a 12-man roster come Victoria. Along with Powell and Thompson, Birch could have the edge based on both national and NBA experience.

However, it’s possible that other factors could come into play. If Nurse is looking to spread the floor by bringing in more shooting, perhaps former Carleton Raven Aaron Doornekamp, currently playing in Spain, gets a look. If the team elects to bring along a young big to gain experience, maybe Clarke or former Miami Heat signee Kyle Alexander, both 24, get looks.

On ability and NBA pedigree alone, Birch should be in Victoria at the end of June. But extenuating circumstances and other potential variables make that no sure thing. Furthermore, the UNLV product can’t simply coast on that expectation, nor can he depend upon his relationship with Nurse to guarantee a spot.

In short, he can be an impact player for Canada, but he’s gotta work for it. He averaged 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds playing for Nurse in Toronto, and it wouldn’t be wise to turn down that production.

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