Things got pretty miserable for the Toronto Raptors in the latter stages of the 2020-21 NBA season. The playoffs disappeared from view, the losses piled up, and the squad finished 12th in the Eastern Conference standings, missing the postseason for the first time since 2013. One positive was the play of newcomer Khem Birch.
The 6-9 center was signed for the remainder of the season by the Raptors on April 10 after being let go two days earlier by the Orlando Magic, the team Birch had played with since making his NBA debut in 2017-18.
Birch played in Toronto’s final 19 games, starting 17 of them, and averaged 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds with the Raptors, significant increases from his numbers in Orlando. It’s amazing what happens when you actually give him playing time and a role of the offensive end.
The Raptors liked what they saw from the Montreal native, and this offseason inked him to a 3-year deal worth $20 million.
This is a significant contract for Birch, who has made about $8 million in his entire NBA career and never signed for more than two years at a time.
Now that he’s got some job stability, Birch can focus on taking his game to the next level. But just how high is that?
Birch, who turned 29 yesterday, is in the age range that most players peak, when experience and ability intersect. Is he a late bloomer, or has he just been underused?
Raptors center Khem Birch will have the best opportunity of his career
In Orlando, Birch got a DNP-CD more often than he got in the starting lineup. He played more than 30 minutes in just seven of his 188 games over parts of four seasons with the Magic. In 19 appearances with the Raptors, he averaged 30.4 minutes per game.
The onus is on the player to make the most of opportunity, but sometimes said opportunities are limited. In Toronto, Birch finally got a real chance from coach Nick Nurse, and he took advantage of it.
In Orlando, Birch contributed next to nothing offensively. His touches on that end of the floor were so limited that his usage rate hovered around 11% in his final two seasons in Orlando.
Comparing his numbers in Toronto with the 48 games he played in Orlando in 2020-21, Birch’s field goal attempts per 36 minutes jumped from 7.9 to 10.7 and his FGA per 100 possessions grew to 14.3 from 10.7, increases of 35% and 34%, respectively.
Subsequently, his points per 36 minutes skyrocketed from 9.6 to 14.2, a whopping 50% increase, while his effective field goal percentage shot up to just under 59%.
On the heels of his fantastic finish to the 2020-21 season, and the subsequent contract the Raptors rewarded him with, signs point to Birch beginning this season with the best opportunity of his NBA career.
The 19 games he played for the Raptors constitute a small sample size, but for that stretch of five weeks last spring, Birch was one of the better centers in the Eastern Conference. If he continues to play like that, it will be near impossible to take him out of the starting five, even for a coach who has become notorious for unpredictable lineup decisions.
The wild card is Precious Achiuwa, who the Raptors acquired this offseason from the Heat as part of the sign-and-trade deal involving Kyle Lowry.
As a rookie last season, the 22-year-old only averaged just 5.0 points and 3.4 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game playing behind all-star Bam Adebayo, but as Achiuwa’s play in Summer League showed, he’s progressing quickly, and will push for a starting frontcourt spot.
Khem Birch still has a lot of room to grow
Birch is more of a traditional low-post center, which, depending on one’s perspective, makes him either a unicorn or a dinosaur in the modern-day NBA. To this point of his career, Birch’s bread and butter has been defense and crashing the boards.
Most conspicuous has been Birch’s lack of shooting range, which may have played a role in his limited minutes with the Magic. So prevalent is the three-pointer in today’s game that if bigs aren’t stretch 4 or 5s, they’re often unemployed 4 or 5s without the lack of a secondary standout trait.
He’s trying to fix that issue, at least. After attempting just two three-pointers in his first three seasons, and only 23 in his entire Orlando tenure, Birch launched 31 shots from beyond the arc in 19 outings with the Raps. He jacked up six alone in the second-to-last game of the season against Dallas.
And though Birch made just nine of those 31 three-point attempts with the Raptors, the willingness to step outside is the first step. There are countless examples of post players that have reinvented themselves with the times and developed a deadly accurate three-point shot late in their career.
Raptors fans might be familiar with one Marc Gasol, for example.
If Birch learns to shoot, he’s suddenly a much more complete package than many of his peers. That higher ceiling is one reason to be optimistic Birch can be better in 2021-22.
At first glance, he does not seem the prototypical Raptor, given the team’s tendency to versatility and position-less basketball. Birch does, however, possess solid athletic ability for his size, and if there’s one thing that he can do well, it’s set up in the post, helping space the floor for the shooters that the Raptors will be able to surround him with.
The performance of Birch is just one of many intriguing storylines to watch for the Raptors, who begin training camp on Sept. 27. In fact, the 6-9 Canadian can be considered in the personification of the team.
There is some great potential hidden amidst the uncertainty.