By Andy Lipton
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops
NEW YORK -- Four years ago, on a trip to Las Vegas I decided to see the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels play a home game at the Thomas & Mack Center against Utah State. A lot of ink was spilled in the early 1990s over the UNLV basketball team and its coach, Jerry Tarkanian, based on their prowess on the court and troubles with the NCAA.
Although many years had passed, given the opportunity, its history compelled me to watch them play in person. Coming from New York, I had not spent much time watching teams from the Mountain West Conference play. The Runnin’ Rebels were 12-7 at the time, and ended the season with a 20-13 record.
Four years ago and more so today, in both in the college and pro game, less and less centers play the way they did years ago -- back to the basket in the low post receiving entry passes, taking hook shots and three-foot contested jumpers, drawing other defenders, passing out of the post, and defending low-post opponents -- you had other players cutting without the ball off the post or playing give-and-go with the center, and in the case of really good low-post centers, passing to cutters away from the ball. I have missed those parts of the game.
I was taken with UNLV’s center, junior Khem Birch, who played the center position in a more traditional sense: Back to the basket, and low post on offense. Birch defended Utah State’s star center, Jarred Shaw, who also played the low post on offense. Birch did a great job of denying Shaw the ball in the second half of that game.
As a sophomore at UNLV, Birch was the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He wound up winning that award again in his junior year, also averaging a double-double that year with 11.5 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game. It was easy to also see that Birch had terrific athleticism going for him -- good hands, ability to get down the court fast, and leaping ability.
In his fourth year since leaving UNLV, Birch had his dream come true: He made the
NBA with the Orlando Magic. Although I really appreciated Birch’s low-post play in the Utah State game, he proved that he could play in today’s NBA – an NBA that has gone away from low-post center play – and he believes his strengths are suited for today’s NBA.
Last week, the Magic was in New York to play the Knicks. After the Magic’s morning shootaround, I spoke to the 6’9” Birch about playing the center position: