UNLV basketball:

Once in similar situations, two former Rebels await their NBA fate


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forwards Mike Moser and Khem Birch reach for a rebound during their Mountain West Conference Tournament game against Air Force Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack. UNLV won 72-56 and will face the winner of the Fresno State vs. Colorado State on Friday.

Two years ago, Mike Moser was Khem Birch.

Both players had big decisions to make after their third season out of high school. Moser, who had just had a breakout season at UNLV, elected to return to school. Birch, who’s coming off back-to-back Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year awards, decided to enter the draft.

Today, both of them will be in Detroit for one final workout before Thursday’s draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Different decisions have led to the exact same destination, and they hope that’s still true by Thursday night. Only by then it won’t be a city but an acronym that has dominated their lives: N.B.A.

“I feel like I’m just as good as any prospect,” Birch said. “Going up against these guys, I know I can compete.”

Unlike last season, when UNLV’s Anthony Bennett went No. 1 overall and Bishop Gorman High’s Shabazz Muhammad rounded out the lottery at No. 14, local players are going to have to wait awhile to hear their names called. There’s even a chance it won’t happen at all.

Birch was the only former Rebel invited to May’s NBA Draft combine and Findlay Prep product Nick Johnson isn’t listed on ESPN’s latest mock draft. Still, if you believe in trends or the second cousin to lies — rumors — then Birch is in a good position.

The Pistons will be Birch’s 12th workout, and by his own estimation the process has gone better than he imagined when he decided to leave school. Competing directly against guys who some project to be better prospects than him has given him confidence. So has the feedback from coaches and front office decision makers.

After the workouts, teams focus on his positives like defensive timing and energy, Birch said, rather than what he needs to work on.

“I already know my weaknesses,” he said, “and that’s on the offensive end.”

Detroit will be the 15th workout for Moser and his third in three days. While Birch is considered by many to be a late-second round steal, Moser is more likely to go undrafted.

Two years ago it was Moser who was considered a second-round sleeper. After an injury-plagued junior year at UNLV and a solid fifth-year senior campaign at Oregon, Moser is at peace with his decision.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Moser said. “I know I’ll have the opportunity this summer to play on a Summer League team whether I get drafted or not.”

Similar to Birch, Moser has been encouraged by his performance in these workouts, often against guys projected to go ahead of him. He worked hard to get himself into a physical condition that made the conditioning drills bearable. Beyond that, Moser’s focus, much like Birch, has been on the areas he knows he needs to improve.

“A lot of compliments on how the shot has come along,” Moser said. “And people are saying I handle the ball better than expected, which is nice since I’ve been working on that.”

Moser used up his eligibility before entering the draft. If Birch, who likely would have been the preseason Mountain West Player of the Year, goes undrafted, people will line up to tell him what a mistake he made.

Even a second round pick, which is where he’ll likely go, isn’t guaranteed a contract. But so far Birch doesn’t sound like a man who regrets his decision.

After a workout in early June with the Toronto Raptors, Birch played pickup games against Adam Sandler, who was in town filming a movie. Birch’s scouting report? “Let him shoot,” he joked.

He’s crisscrossed the country, and even returned home to Canada, to do workouts, and at this point he feels better about his place in the basketball world than he did at the end of UNLV’s season in March. Birch didn’t have any grand visions about leaving school and getting guaranteed money.

He knows his flaws and he’s willing to work on them. Hopefully as part of an NBA organization, even if that means the lower level.

“I’m very happy,” Birch said. “It was hard for me to leave UNLV; I love Vegas and I love the program. … But part of the reason I left was I wanted to develop. If I have to go to the D-League right now I don’t mind.”

Here’s a look at the draft prospects for Birch, Moser and a few other players either with local or Mountain West ties:

    • Khem Birch

      UNLV forward, 21 years old

      Combine measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’7.5”

      Weight: 208.8

      Wingspan: 7’1”

      Max vertical: 35.5”

      Mock drafts: No. 42 (NBADraft.net), No. 47 (ESPN), No. 54 (CBS Sports), No. 56 (Draft Express)

      Outlook: Birch is trending upwards at the exact right time. He's the only player in this group listed on all four included mock drafts, and considering the potential upside it would almost be a surprise not to hear his name after the 40th pick on Thursday night.

    • Roscoe Smith

      UNLV forward, 23 years old

      Workout measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’7.5”

      Weight: 202

      Wingspan: 7’1.5”

      Max vertical: 36”

      Mock drafts: Undrafted (ESPN, CBS Sports, Draft Express, NBADraft.net)

      Outlook: Smith wasn't going to have better numbers his final year at UNLV, so as long as he's realistic about his professional options — maybe some NBA Summer League and then likely a trip abroad — the decision makes sense. He's got great energy and rebounding ability, which are two things always in demand somewhere.

    • Mike Moser

      Oregon forward (UNLV), 23 years old

      Workout measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’6.75”

      Weight: 204

      Wingspan: 7’0.25”

      Max vertical: 30.5”

      Mock drafts: Undrafted (ESPN, CBS Sports, Draft Express, NBADraft.net)

      Outlook: Two years ago Moser was a possible second-round prospect. Now, he's unlikely to hear his named called, but it would actually be more surprising if he didn't subsequently catch on with a team for the Summer League. If his shot really is improved, Moser has an NBA body and pro potential.

    • Nick Johnson

      Arizona guard (Findlay Prep), 21 years old

      Combine measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’1.5”

      Weight: 198

      Wingspan: 6'7.25”

      Max vertical: 41.5”

      Mock drafts: No. 31 (CBS Sports), No. 37 (NBADraft.net), No. 46 (Draft Express), Undrafted (ESPN)

      Outlook: It's surprising to find such a prominent figure as ESPN's Chad Ford have Johnson completely absent from his 60-pick mock draft. Johnson has been a key factor on many winning teams, and combined with his athleticism he's absolutely worth a second-round pick.

    • Deonte Burton

      UNR guard, 22 years old

      Combine measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’0”

      Weight: 192.8

      Wingspan: 6'7”

      Max vertical: 39.5”

      Mock drafts: No. 40 (CBS Sports), No. 48 (NBADraft.net), No. 49 (Draft Express), Undrafted (ESPN)

      Outlook: Burton's highlights might be the best of this entire group. Not only can he jump but he's incredibly coordinated while soaring through the air. Burton is likely to hear his named called Thursday, and if he doesn't he'll be one of the most sought-after free agents and a can't-miss player at the Summer League.

    • Cameron Bairstow

      New Mexico forward, 23 years old

      Combine measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’8.75”

      Weight: 252.4

      Wingspan: 7'0.75”

      Max vertical: 33.5”

      Mock drafts: No. 49 (NBADraft.net), Undrafted (ESPN, CBS Sports, Draft Express)

      Outlook: Bairstow really made himself an NBA prospect in the last year. It's not just the improved body; his touch around the rim and plethora of post moves made almost every Lobo game worth recording if only to show to a young, aspiring post player. He might end up with a long road to the NBA, but don't bet against him getting there eventually.

    • Alex Kirk

      New Mexico forward, 22 years old

      Combine measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’9.25”

      Weight: 252

      Wingspan: 7'3.5”

      Max vertical: 31.5”

      Mock drafts: Undrafted (ESPN, CBS Sports, Draft Express, NBADraft.net)

      Outlook: It's an uphill climb for Kirk, who had the second-most body-fat percentage of the prospects at the NBA combine and doesn't have any dominant skills. What's Kirk great at? It's a difficult question. He's good at a lot, certainly good enough to make money somewhere playing the game, but leaving New Mexico a year early didn't make a ton of sense in this case.

    • Xavier Thames

      San Diego State guard, 23 years old

      Combine measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’2.25”

      Weight: 187

      Wingspan: 6'4”

      Max vertical: 32.5”

      Mock drafts: Undrafted (ESPN, CBS Sports, Draft Express, NBADraft.net)

      Outlook: As an "undersized" guard the road will be difficult for Thames, but you'd be a fool to bet against him. He was arguably the best player in the Mountain West last season and his great play down the stretch in big games certainly earns him points.

    • Kendall Williams

      New Mexico guard, 22 years old

      Combine measurements

      Height (w/o shoes): 6’2.25”

      Weight: 183

      Wingspan: 6'5.5”

      Max vertical: 33”

      Mock drafts: Undrafted (ESPN, CBS Sports, Draft Express, NBADraft.net)

      Outlook: Like Thames, Williams isn't likely to get drafted Thursday. But also like Thames, he's going to get a shot because he's simply performed too well in too many big occasions to be cast aside so quickly. It won't be the most obvious road, but Williams can make good money playing this game before his career is over.

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

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