Every player has a different path to earning playing time in the NBA.
There are a few different paths players. For some, mainly high-end draft picks, they’re given minutes right off the bat to learn, and adapt to the NBA game. Others have to sit and wait their turn behind veterans, and players who have established themselves in the league, and on their current team.
For the Orlando Magic’s Khem Birch, he’s had to wait his turn behind a veteran starter in Nikola Vucevic, and a top-10 draft pick in Mo Bamba.
With Bamba out with a foot injury, Birch has made the most of his minutes, making his impact felt in a big way during the Magic’s tight victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday night. While he didn’t post flashy numbers — Birch finished with four points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and one assist — he made his impact felt all over the floor, changing shots, setting hard screens, and bringing energy the team desperately needed after a slow start.
Following the game, Birch said he took a lot of pride from being able to come in and perform that way, despite the lack of minutes he had seen through the seasons first half. He also felt as tough it was karma for a decision he made as an immature 19-year-old.
“I feel like it’s karma from when I was 19 transferring from [The University of] Pittsburgh mid-way through the season. I think that’s some sort of karma right there.”
The second-year big man talked about how his decision to transfer during his first semester at Pitt was one of the most immature things he had to do. Due to NCAA rules, he had to sit out until the second semester at UNLV the following year before he was allowed to play.
Birch said that his decision to transfer, and subsequent sitting out for a season, helped teach him to always be ready, especially since he returned to the court mid-way through the season.
The high-energy big man credited coach Steve Clifford as well for his ability to stay ready, and be focused.
“Coach Clifford said one through 15 has to be prepared regardless of the situation,” said Birch. “That statement kind of makes you feel like you’re part of the team.”
Despite getting his chance now, Birch understands reality, and knows that once Bamba returns from injury, he’s likely going to be relegated back to a role on the bench.
“I told him [Clifford] I understand reality,” said Birch. “Mo’s going to play, and Vooch is going to play. Those guys are so talented. I feel like in life you have to understand the reality of the situation, and I think learning from Pitt has helped me cope with that.”
While his time getting backup minutes right now could be coming to an end after the Magic’s game against the Houston Rockets on Sunday night, Birch has undoubtedly shown his worth, and that he deserves a longer look should something happen to one of Bamba or Vucevic the remainder of the season.
Nonetheless, Birch has shown the importance of always staying ready, and that he understands what he needs to do once his number is called.
“Right now I’m just trying to stay focused, stay ready and when my number is called, do it the best I can do,” he said.