The kid who once inspired the biggest fan-prop in college basketball known as “Khem Kong,” who was known for his tremendous defense around the hoop and delivering one of his patented ‘Birch-Slaps’ to opponents that went into SDSU’s hostile environment during one of the most anticipated match-ups of the year in the Mountain West Conference and gave their fans and ‘The Show’ a reason to sit down and be humble — that kid has now grown up.
Former UNLV center Khem Birch has returned home to UNLV this week with the Orlando Magic for the NBA Summer League.
Birch transferred to UNLV after his freshman year at Pitt in 2012. Forced to sit out his mandatory one year per NCAA rules, he came in with a bang and immediately made an impact on the fans and the culture around Vegas hoops with his Canadian counterpart and fellow big-man, former first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett. Birch’s likeness became the largest prop in college basketball, which — during the second half of games — is under the home basket.
Then, just like many of the other UNLV basketball players who were given a false sense of draft ranking, he left school early following his junior year with the Rebs.
“I loved playing here at UNLV for (former) Coach [Dave] Rice and with my teammates,” Birch said in a statement. “After talking at length with my family, I have decided to pursue my professional career. It was a tough decision, one that I thought about for a very long time. I will finish my classes this semester and I will be a Runnin’ Rebel for life.”
The story sounds familiar so far: Birch went undrafted in 2014 and struggled to make an NBA roster during the summer league. He did, although, make the 2015 D-League All-Star game before continuing his career overseas in Turkey to search for more playing time, better competition, and a better paycheck (probably).
After opting out of a contract for his Greek team in 2017, Birch was able to sign with the Orlando Magic and appear in 42 NBA games for the big league team in the 2017-2018 season, so it seems like his own personal process is working. That’s where we find him today, back in the NBA Summer League, back at the home of the Runnin’ Rebels, back to work.
“I thank God that I wasn’t here (in the NBA) earlier in my career because I probably would have made a lot of mistakes,’’ Birch told NBA.com. “I made a lot of mistakes without even being in the NBA, so if I would have had that (NBA) pressure on me, it might not have gone so well. Now, this is the right time to be here because I’m more mature and my head is humble.
“I’m happy that it’s happened the way that it has.’’
Once again on an Orlando Magic roster, Khem finds himself this summer standing next to first-round big-name prospect Mohamed Bamba. With no clear spot for him, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and effort to force the Magic coaches’ hand in giving him a share of the rotation. Off to a good start already, his first Summer League game was strong, most notably on the defensive side of things.
Check out this block by Khem Birch….and pretend that layup attempt by Melvin Frazier at the other end never happened pic.twitter.com/MIzKmO7WOw
— Orlando Pinstriped Post (@OPPMagicBlog) July 6, 2018
Last year with the “Big Boy Club,” Birch was playing out of position. Khem could care less, and his work ethic has proved that he’s ready to make the jump into a regular role. This could be the summer that Khem Birch makes himself known, not only to his Magic team, but to the entire basketball world.
Not only is he pushing for (and deserving of) his spot in the NBA, Birch also has plans to play for his native Canadian team for the FIBA World Cup Qualifying Games. With such broad shoulders, the man can carry the weight of all his opportunities easily, in my opinion.
I can only hope to share a Labatt Blue and talk about with the guy as his monstrous mannequin still overlooks us at PKWY Tavern in Summerlin, its new permanent home now that Birch is a Magic, not a Rebel. Who knows? Maybe Khem Kong will return for an Orlando game but, for now, it’ll have to be overlook drunken beer fans in the Red Room at PKWY.