UNLV basketball:

Rebels’ block party ends with Birch declaring for NBA Draft

The 2-time league Defensive Player of the Year decides to forgo senior season and face uncertain pro future

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Khem Birch heads off the court after their Mountain West Conference semifinal game Friday, March 14, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. The #8 ranked San Diego State Aztecs won 59-51 to advance to the finals.

Updated Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 8:16 p.m.

UNLV Runnin' Rebel Khem Birch

UNLV forward Khem Birch waits for play against San Diego State to resume during their game Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 at Viejas Arena in San Diego. The 10th ranked SDSU won the game 63-52. Launch slideshow »

The most important decision of UNLV’s offseason has been made and it leaves the Rebels without the two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Junior forward Khem Birch announced today that he would forgo his final season and enter the NBA Draft.

“I loved playing here at UNLV for Coach Rice and with my teammates,” Birch said in a statement. “… It was a tough decision, one that I thought about for a very long time.”

Birch first announced the news on Twitter, and added that he will finish his classes this semester. That’s important for Academic Progress Rate purposes, as an incomplete would damage the Rebels’ score.

As a junior, Birch averaged 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks in a team-leading 31.4 minutes per game. His 192 total blocks at UNLV were two short of career leader Dalron Johnson (1999-03). Birch led the Rebels in points or rebounds 24 times last season and finished with 17 double-doubles, tied for eighth most in the country.

Birch had until Sunday night to make up his mind, and Rice said that waiting this long is probably a good indication of how “agonizing” this decision was for him.

“He’s a pleaser,” Rice said. “I think he didn’t want to let anyone down on the team or our coaches, and I reassured him that he had to do what he and his family thought was in the best interest of Khem.”

At least 35 other underclassmen are in the draft pool, including UNLV’s Roscoe Smith and New Mexico’s Alex Kirk. That trio doesn’t appear on many mock drafts and there’s a decent chance all three of them end up undrafted, although Birch and Kirk could be taken as second round flyers on June 26.

Birch was a McDonald’s All-American in 2011 and he played 26 games for UNLV as a sophomore, after transferring midyear from Pittsburgh. From that season to his junior year, Birch improved his rebounding while decreasing turnovers, but his two-point percentage fell from 56.3 to 51. According to hoop-math.com, the Montreal, Quebec, native converted 61.8 percent of his shots at the rim, which isn’t great for quality big men.

While he made some noticeable offensive improvements from the left block, it’s clear there’s still plenty of room for Birch’s game to grow. However, his defensive prowess and athleticism will certainly draw some interest.

With Birch’s departure, the Rebels will now be without their top four scorers from last year’s team. Bryce Dejean-Jones transferred to Iowa State for his final season, Birch and Smith will try the NBA Draft and Kevin Olekaibe is out of eligibility.

Combine that with the numbers of reserves who won’t be back and UNLV must replace 65 percent of its scoring, 69.5 percent of its rebounding and 60.7 percent of its total minutes.

“I’ve always said that when someone leaves, whether it’s graduation, early entry, transfer or whatever it may be, it’s an opportunity for someone else or others,” Rice said.

One of the incoming freshmen, Goodluck Okonoboh, is the most likely benefactor of Birch’s available minutes. Okonoboh is a slightly bigger version of Birch with the same defensive mindset, although there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to time blocks or stay out of foul trouble nearly as well as Birch did.

Returning sophomore Christian Wood will also see an uptick in minutes. Wood’s shot selection becomes even more important as the Rebels will need some inside help.

Wood was very good in the post last season, hitting 55.2 percent of his 2-pointers, but he was awful from beyond the arc (22 percent). And the problem is he took 42.7 percent of his shots from out there. Further down the bench, redshirt freshman Demetris Morant seems unlikely to transfer now that more minutes are available in the post.

Birch became the eighth Rebel in the last two years to leave the program with eligibility remaining. One was kicked out (Savon Goodman), two transferred to sit out (Katin Reinhardt, Jamal Aytes), two transferred to play right away (Mike Moser, Dejean-Jones) and three have entered the draft (Anthony Bennett, Smith, Birch).

“It’s what’s going on in college basketball,” Rice said. “We’re always looking for stability … but we also understand the reality that guys do transfer quicker than they used to and they put their name in the draft quicker than they used to. It’s the reality of what we do and so we never stop recruiting.”

The most likely player to fill the open scholarship is Bishop Gorman grad Ben Carter, who is transferring from Oregon and was expected to select UNLV if a scholarship became available. Carter would have to sit out a season per NCAA transfer rules.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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