Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, July 14, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Khem Birch’s professional career hasn’t had the start he had in mind.
When Birch, the two-time defending Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, left UNLV with a year of eligibility remaining, he thought the next step was to get picked in the NBA Draft. So when Birch went undrafted June 26, did he regret his decision?
No, not really.
“I felt like I was ready,” Birch said Saturday after his NBA Summer League debut with the Washington Wizards. “I felt what I do is what I was going to do next year in college, just be an energy player and a defensive player. So I wanted to take my talents to the next level.”
There was always a risk he wouldn’t get picked, something Birch considered as he decided what to do. If he returned, he would have become the program’s all-time leading shot blocker — Birch needed only three to set the record — and likely would have been the preseason league player of the year.
It’s possible a solid senior season would have secured him a draft slot, maybe even with guaranteed money in the first round. Of course, that’s far from a guarantee, and it’s also possible Birch would have returned and found himself in the same position a year from now.
“Then I would have been a year older and been the same type of player,” Birch said. “Right now I’m younger and I’m learning.”
In his first professional game, against the Atlanta Hawks, Birch scored eight points on 4-of-5 shooting with two blocks, one assist and eight fouls in 23 minutes. He didn't grab any rebounds, something Wizards coach Sam Cassell said he was going to get on Birch about in practice.
“He got every rebound in training camp,” Cassell said.
On Sunday night in a victory against Shabazz Muhammad and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Birch finished with eight points, six rebounds four blocks and nine fouls in 30 minutes..
Birch’s mobility has often been one of his assets as a big man, but he’s finding out that there’s a big difference between college shape and what’s expected in the NBA.
“It’s very intense. We run all the time; coaches don’t even care,” Birch said. “The second practice (of the day) is just as hard as the first one.”
Birch is aware that his biggest deficiency is on offense. All of his points Saturday came within 2 feet of the basket ,and at the other end, he won’t be able to be the same shot-blocking force at his size.
All that said, Birch sounded happy with his decision to get a professional career underway.
“Obviously I’ve got to get way better, get more physical,” he said. “The NBA’s always going to be there, and I’m going to get better regardless if I make the team or not. I’m going to be in the D-League or something making money for playing basketball.”
Birch chose the Wizards because the organization expressed the most interest and told him that he would have a legitimate chance to make the roster. He expects, then, to get a lot of playing time throughout the Summer League. Cassell sounded like he believed Birch’s style would help him make it.
“In this league, guys with energy always find a way to have a job,” Cassell said.
While Birch is clearly happy to be on a new journey, it’s not like there aren’t things he misses about UNLV. There’s a reason it took him more than a month after the season to declare for the draft, and there was no better place to make his pro debut than Las Vegas.
“I almost got teary eyed a little bit,” Birch said. “It was a great experience, and I’m glad to be home.”
Glad to be visiting, at least. UNLV would have been better off had Birch stayed. One could argue he would have been better off, too, but that's not something Birch thinks about much. No matter what happens in this Summer League, he's moving on.