GAME CHANGER PART .01

In early December 2016, the Orlando Magic selected Lakeland as home of their new NBA Development League affiliate. That same day, the organization would also announce the promotion of the League’s first and only female president, Shelly Wilkes. For burgeoning talents such as Khem Birch, his sole focus on playing for an NBA team, the Lakeland Magic offered a whole new game. For burgeoning talents such as Khem Birch, his sole focus on playing for an NBA team, the Lakeland Magic offered a whole new game.

Photos by Geoff Forbes

In 2014, in the epicenter of gambling and questionable choices, Khem Birch placed a life-changing $38,000 bet.  

Birch had recently finished a standout junior season at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, better known as UNLV. Birch averaged double figures in scoring, rebounding, and an astounding 3.8 blocks a game in an underrated Mountain West Conference that put five teams in the 2013 NCAA tournament — one more than famed basketball powerhouse The ACC.

A highly touted recruit out of high school, some even considered Birch a “one and done” candidate — a freshman who leaves NCAA basketball after a single season for the riches of the NBA. While he progressed slower than anticipated, especially on the offensive end, Birch made huge strides in his three years of college. “I’d played three years. I was second in the nation in blocks as a junior. I just — I felt like I was ready. And it had always been my dream of playing in the NBA,” Birch says. So he made his bet, foregoing a $38,000 UNLV scholarship and his final year of eligibility. 

Birch wasn’t drafted. 

He’d been projected by many analysts as a strong middle of the second round draft pick, a power forward prospect with a natural nose for defense. For many, the sour cocktail of surprise and disappointment might have put an end to the NBA dream. Not Birch. 

“A lot of people were questioning me, criticizing me when I didn’t get drafted. Saying I made a mistake leaving. But really, all that just served as motivation.” It’s hard to say why he wasn’t drafted, but maybe it was because Birch is only six feet nine inches tall.

Only. 

In the world of NBA power forwards and centers, standing a few inches shy of seven feet qualifies Birch as “undersized” for his skill set. With many of his defense-minded, shot-blocking counterparts nearing or exceeding the seven-feet threshold, Birch would need to take the road less traveled to the NBA. 

After the draft, not getting picked meant Birch became a free agent. The Washington Wizards, a team with no picks in the draft due to previous trades, quickly signed Birch to play in the NBA summer league. 

He played well. Birch averaged five points and more than five rebounds to go along with nearly two blocks in less than 20 minutes per outing. Strong play from an undrafted rookie, sure, but not enough to earn a roster spot on a playoff team filled with veteran big men. After being cut by the Wizards, Birch was picked up by the Miami Heat, seemingly a better fit for his skill set. Birch played well in the preseason, dominating the glass and establishing himself as a defensive force. He made it to the final 16 players on the Heat’s roster. An NBA roster, in case you were wondering, carries 15. 

A week after being a single roster cut shy of making the 2012 and 2013 NBA champion Miami Heat, Birch found his way to Sioux Falls, Iowa. Frustrated but refusing to give up his dream, Birch signed a deal to play for a team you’ve probably never heard of — the Sioux Falls “Skyforce.” Again, Birch played well, but never got the call from an NBA squad. In June of 2015, Birch signed with Usak Sportif, a Turkish league team that frequently plays in front of smaller crowds than a well-attended high school contest. It was here, in Turkey, that Birch began to question himself. “In Turkey, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it [to the NBA.] I never quit being the first guy to the gym. But Turkey … it was tough.” 

Birch’s story, frankly, isn’t unique in a lot of ways. Thousands of guys from around the globe vie for one of the 450 NBA roster spots — 30 teams, 15 spots each. Not to mention the never-ending cycle of guys coming out of college each year, all with the same goal of landing a massive NBA contract. For the 2017-2018 season, the minimum salary for an NBA rookie is $815,615. That’s the minimum. But for Birch, playing in 2015 for an inconsistent paycheck, halfway across the world, in front of dozens of people, makes it easy to understand how doubt could cloud the dream. 

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the NBA D League had begun a major overhaul. The league had been steadily growing. Rumblings of a major rebrand were a poorly kept secret, and, by 2017, the NBA D-League became the NBA “G” League. A hefty sponsorship with Gatorade provided more than just money — it offered legitimacy, too. The league’s major competition for guys on the cusp of making an NBA roster were teams like Birch’s. Even though overseas paychecks may have been inconsistent, they were often larger than in the G League, sometimes exponentially. The G League sought to close that gap, or at least to offer more value to players and retain as much talent as possible. A part of that retention needed to come from adding new teams, ideally one for every NBA franchise. 

Shelly Wilkes had been with the Orlando Magic organization for 12 years when an executive approached her about a major potential promotion at the worst possible time. “It was like three minutes before the game started and I’m running around, taking care of last minute emergencies. He approached me and said, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about a new role I think you might be interested in.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah! But can we talk about this later?’” 

The position, it turns out, was the president of a new G league team based close to home. “We hadn’t even chosen a city yet,” Wilkes says. “But Lakeland was the front runner.” In December 2016, the team made the official announcement — The Lakeland Center (now RP Funding Center) had been selected over other finalist Kissimmee to serve as the team’s home base. That same day, the Magic announced the selection of Wilkes as the team’s first president.

Wilkes, the first and only female team president in the G League, is passionate about developing a great product, not only for the fans and the players, but everyone involved with the league. “The goal of the G League team is to develop your players. That’s your number-one goal. Outside of that, it’s really growing every other level of the organization. We want to develop everyone else as well, whether that’s your GM or your scouts or referees or your coaches. It’s a great opportunity to grow those people for the next level.”   

Back in Europe, Khem Birch had played well enough in Turkey to get noticed by a scout from a more established Greek team, The Olympiacos B.C. Despite his circuitous route, Birch continued to push himself. 

“Every day I’d shoot a thousand shots, run on the treadmill for an hour, plus do 200 push-ups and sit-ups, and I’d finish by drinking a gallon of water. I really wanted to work on my body. Make sure I was ready.” It was working; Birch was progressing. In July of 2017, Birch made his second major bet on himself — he opted-out of his contract with Olympiacos to sign with the Orlando Magic. 

Now, as a reminder, this didn’t guarantee Birch a roster spot on the Orlando squad. His contract came with a modest guarantee, meaning if he didn’t earn a roster spot his gamble on himself would prove to be an expensive one. Birch was undaunted by the pressure and set his mind to achieving his dream. 

Birch played just 41 minutes in all of the 2017-2018 preseason. When called upon however, he brought an energy not found on score sheets. He played great defense. He was willing to listen, willing to learn. Coaches raved about him. “It was clear to us that Khem separated himself throughout training camp with his ability to do what he does,” Head Coach Frank Vogel said. “He has a great feel for the game as a big man. He understands the rolling big offensive plan where he is going to crash on everything and be a forceful roller and threat at the rim. But also, he has a good feel for passing, catching the pocket pass and making the extra. And he really showed a surprising level of understanding of what is expected of our centers defensively and a great discipline in blocking shots. He impacted the game with his energy right away when he came into the game. He had a really good camp.” In mid-October of 2017, Birch found himself in a familiar spot, this time among the last 17 guys vying for an Orlando Magic roster spot. 

On the night of October 13, shortly after the Magic’s final preseason game, Birch was walking home in downtown Orlando when he got a call from Vogel and GM John Hammond. Birch heard the words he’d dreamed about his whole life — he’d made the team. 

Also in mid-October, the Lakeland Magic were in the final stages of preseason and prep work before their home opener on November 10. Wilkes and her staff were fervently prepping for their inaugural home game, not sure what to expect from a city who’d never had a professional basketball team before. 

November 10 came, and fans turned out in droves. 

The line to get into the game stretched from one wing of the RP Funding Center to another, thousands of fans excited to be a part of opening night. Eager fans were treated to an exciting back-and-forth game, the Magic prevailing 105-100 behind the outstanding play of one Khem Birch

One of the unique aspects of the G League today is the flexibility it allows their NBA teams. While Birch earned his roster spot and an NBA contract, he’s still able to log valuable playing time with their G League affiliate. For Birch, this obviously turned out to be the best of both worlds. In his second game with the Lakeland Magic, Birch was able to log 41 minutes of game action — the exact same amount of time logged in all of his preseason combined. He scored 16 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and blocked a game-changing five shots. And in a touch of irony, all of this against a team Birch knew quite well — the Sioux Falls Skyforce. 

Recently, Birch hasn’t spent much time with the Lakeland Magic. Injuries to Orlando starters and stellar play from Birch have forced Orlando’s hand. Not only is Birch realizing his dream of playing in the NBA, he’s now getting regular minutes of playing time. He recently got his first career “double-double” scoring 12 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and recording four blocks against the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

If the number-one goal of the Lakeland Magic is to develop players, they have quite the poster child in Birch. “Khem, well, I’m not sure we’re ever going to get him back,” Wilkes says with a smile.