LAS VEGAS - Focus for the Washington Wizards entered summer league centered on rising second-year wings Otto Porter and Glen Rice. Undrafted rookie center Khem Birch is trying to steal some of the attention – or even better, a regular season roster spot.
Based on his mini-camp workouts, the former UNLV product might just do both. However, on the same day the Wizards lose Trevor Ariza in free agency, replace him with Paul Pierce and Otto Porter shines on the court, generating attention is something of a challenge.
As of Saturday night, the Wizards have only two big men under contract in starters Nene and Marcin Gortat. They made a qualifying offer to Kevin Seraphin and are expected to bring back Drew Gooden. Neither of those reserves are rim protectors. That’s what the energetic Birch, the 2014 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, provides.
“Guys who have energy always find a way to have a job in this league,” Wizards summer league head coach Sam Cassell said of Birch following Washington’s opening win over Atlanta.
That’s the hope for the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder, who left UNLV after averaging 11.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks as a junior. Now Birch returns to the Thomas & Mack Center
“It was really tough,” Birch said of the decision to leave school early,” Birch said. “Las Vegas is like my second home. I love the coaching staff, all the players, but I felt like I was ready. I felt like what I do, what I was going to do in college next year is be an energy player, a defensive player. I wanted to take my talents to the next level.”
Though projected as a second round possibility, Birch, who worked out in Washington pre-draft, never heard his name called on draft night. Apparently the Wizards called his agent plenty to express their interest.
“The reason I went to Washington is because they called my agent a lot of times after the draft and said I can make the roster,” said Birch, who turns 23 in September.
Obviously, every player dreams of that selection moment. Toward the middle of the second round, Birch hoped that dream would go unfulfilled. He would then get to pick from a variety of suitors.
"The last 15 picks, it’s usually not good to get drafted the last 15 picks,” he said. “Right now the Wizards like me a lot and I’m on a team that likes me.”
One reason Washington likes Birch, his work on the glass. Well, the work he displayed back at the Verizon Center earlier in the week. Against the Hawks, Birch didn’t grab a board in 22 minutes. The mobile big man blocked two shots and also made 4 of 5 from the field. Limited offensively according to long-time observers, Birch took advantage of nice passes from his fellow starters and open space in the paint by finishing several times at the rim versus Atlanta.
Heading into Sunday’s matchup with Minnesota, Cassell wants Birch to focus on grabbing those shots that carom off the rim.
“I don’t think (Khem) had a rebound today. Got every rebound in training camp and didn’t get a rebound today,” Cassell said. “He’ll definitely hear from me tomorrow about getting some rebounds.”
Following the trade for Paul Pierce, the Wizards top positional priority centers on the reserve big men. Birch may indeed hear from Washington about sticking around beyond Las Vegas. If he grabs rebounds and brings the energy, that is.