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‘Unselfish’ Canadian Khem Birch stepping it up with Raptors

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The best statistical stretch of Khem Birch’s NBA career came during a 19-game run at the end of last season.

After joining the Toronto Raptors when he was waived by the Orlando Magic, the big man from Montreal shot more than had at any point in his career, scored more than he ever has in his career and took different shots than he never had in his career.

As a pending free agent, he felt the need to demonstrate abilities he rarely got show as a backup with the Magic. It worked out for all concerned, but he felt like he was out of his basketball comfort zone.

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He almost sounds like he wished it never happened.

He felt like he was looking out for himself – on offence especially – and it was taking him away from the way he likes to play.

“I hate contract years just because you have to do things outside your element,” he said Thursday after the Raptors practised at OVO Center. “Last year I had to score, and all the other stuff that I don’t like to do. I just like to win.”

So what kind of out-of-character basketball was Birch playing?

Well, on a per-36-minute basis, Birch was taking 10.7 shots per game, compared to his career average of 7.8, and he was taking 1.9 threes per game after peaking at 0.8 per game when he was in Orlando. Keep in mind he was efficient – converting on 55.6 per cent of his shots. And even though his hands were on the ball more than at any time in his career, his usage rate was still just 15.8 per cent, which is low even for a role player.

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So it wasn’t like Birch was trying to hijack the offence, by any stretch. Just for comparison, last season Pascal Siakam had a 26.3 per cent usage rate and averaged 17.2 shots a game to top the Raptors in both categories.

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So, clearly, what Birch defines as hunting his own shot was an extremely mild case. But a player has his values, and Birch’s are just that: he wants his teammates to eat first, second and last, if necessary.

“Ever since I’ve been playing basketball, I never cared about stats,” said Birch, who is in his fifth NBA season after starting his career in Europe and working his way through the G-League. “I used to watch the Detroit Pistons and how they played defence, and in high school people told me they loved playing with me because I was so unselfish. I remember being ranked high in high school and I never averaged a lot of points or anything. The way I’ve played has got me to where I am right now, so I would never change it.”

He’s got no need to. The Raptors appreciated what he brought to the table at the end of last season and gave him the best contract of his career: $20 million over three years.

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“He’s got a really unselfish kind of team mentality,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

They didn’t pay him to put up numbers, which is a big reason Birch feels so comfortable now.

“What people think doesn’t matter, the organization gave me a good contract this summer, so if anything, that should tell me and other people what they value,” said Birch.

It’s not like Birch is trying to go around the practice facility and not be noticed. He’s got his own brand of confidence, perhaps best shown when he delivered the best line of the season when asked about the noticeable improvement in the defensive output by Gary Trent Jr. – another player who seems settled with a new contract in his pocket and who is among the league leaders in steals and deflections this season:

“Gary is like one of the best players I have ever seen – like, no offence – not play defence and then all of a sudden become a good defender,” said Birch. “It’s crazy. I swear I’ve never seen that before. He can be one of the best two-way players in this league. I think he leads the league in steals. That’s amazing … I told him that.”

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But other than a surprisingly good quote, Birch’s contributions are more subtle. He’s averaging just 6.6 points a game and 4.6 shots a game in 23 minutes a night but was plus-10 in 22 minutes off the bench in the Raptors win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday and plus-20 in 31 minutes in Monday’s win over the New York Knicks.

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In the pivotal moments against the Wizards, he found a way to screen himself open for key basket in pick-and-roll action with point guard Fred VanVleet. He’s among the Raptors’ leaders in screen assists and loose balls recovered, and in net rating. He’s a smart passer, a low turnover risk and a good offensive rebounder. All the pluses add up.

The Raptors have a chance to run their winning streak to six games against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that their run of strong play has coincided with Birch getting back to full strength after missing the first 10 days of training camp with COVID. It kept him from the starting lineup as Precious Achiuwa’s strong pre-season earned him the nod. But as Achiuwa has struggled – the second-year big man his shooting just 28.9 per cent over his last five games – Birch has stepped in a stepped up. Nurse may or may not start him, but Birch is likely going to be a fixture in closing lineups for the foreseeable future.

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Earning that kind of trust is another category isn’t easily measured, but that’s fine too. Birch says he never looks at box scores because basketball’s raw numbers don’t really resonate with him.

But what about advanced data and player tracking information, which do a little better job of capturing how he can help a team without scoring? Don’t the Raptors have that information?

“I think they do, but they don’t tell me when I ask, so it doesn’t matter,” says Birch. “It’s just one game. You can’t dwell on one game. I just feel like you have a good game, you have to move on. You can lose and everything you accomplished before just didn’t matter. I just feel like you can’t focus on individual accolades and stuff.

“You just have to focus on team.”



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