Khem Birch had been dreaming about Sunday night for years.
Growing up in Montreal he used to watch Toronto Raptors games religiously. Usually, Raptors gamedays would involve his father complaining about the team in those days and yelling at the television whenever things went wrong, Birch said. For Birch, it was all about Vince Carter, the high-flying franchise icon of those early 2000s teams.
"My cousin, she had a poster of Vince Carter on her wall of the dunk contest in 2000, so I always have a vivid memory of that poster," Birch said. "But just seeing them go through those struggles from the early-2000s to 2010s but we always supported them just because they’re the home team and that’s why it means so much to me."
At times, Birch said he was at a loss for words when it came to his excitement. After spending for yours with the Orlando Magic he was finally given a chance to experience a new team. When that opportunity came it sounded like it was a pretty easy decision where he'd like to play. Not only were the Raptors providing an opportunity to play for his home country's team, but Toronto offered a chance to reconnect with Nick Nurse, his Team Canada basketball coach who Birch played for at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.
"Coach Nurse plays that’s how I’ve always wanted to play, and also he gives great confidence to his players," Birch said. "Just the fact that I’m going to be playing for a coach that’s coached me before I’m going to be more comfortable out there."
It might, however, take a little while for that comfort to come. On Sunday against the New York Knicks, Birch still had a little bit of that 'new guy' look to him, Nurse said. It's understandable considering it was his first game with the team, but the Raptors only have 18 games left this season to get Birch acclimated to their system and nobody is going to wait around.
Ultimately, the last quarter of the season is going to amount to an elongated tryout for the 28-year-old centre who will head into free agency this summer. He's shown he can be a talented big off the bench and that is going to be something the Raptors are looking for come free agency. Nurse wants to see if Birch can be that player for Toronto going forward as a high-energy big man who can play 15 to 20 minutes per game for a very good team.
"It's extending those good minutes of play, stretching them out longer, doing it consistently night after night," Nurse said. "He's a rebounder, screener, roller, needs to be a good defensive player in that role and protect the rim some, execute the schemes, etc., finish at the rim when given an opportunity."
In Orlando, Birch was essentially used as a rebounder and a roll man. Almost 75% of his shot attempts came without a dribble involved and 20% of his offensive possessions were putbacks, according to NBA Stats. While Toronto is still going to need those aspects of his game, Birch thinks there is a little bit more he can show off in a new system.
"I think taking guys off the dribble. I can do that a lot more," he said. "Also, more pocket passes and just getting the ball a little bit more and being able to do more plays."
If Birch can show off those extra tools he has, there's no reason he can't be a more long-term piece for Toronto going forward. The Raptors already have Chris Boucher, Birch's fellow Montreal native, locked up for next season and an all Montreal backup frontcourt makes a ton of sense for Canada's lone NBA team.