UpNext: Birch and Bachynski, the Canadian Shield

Despite standing just six-foot-nine, UNLV's Khem Birch is third in the NCAA in blocked shots at 3.69 per game (Photo: Isaac Brekken/AP)
February 20, 2014, 3:11 PM

UpNext brings you the best up-and-coming Canadian basketball talent. In this week’s instalment, two of the NCAA’s finest shot blockers, Jordan Bachynski and Khem Birch.

At times in 2013-14, it’s felt like Canadian college players have received more attention in this one season than in the entire history of NCAA basketball leading up to it. It may seem strange—even ungrateful—then, for me to point out that there is still a wealth of Canadian talent flying under the radar of fans north of the border. But I don’t care, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

As of Feb. 20, two of the top three shot blockers in America are Canadians, Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski (4.46 blocks per game) and UNLV’s Khem Birch (3.69). And though they took completely different paths to get where they are today, both members of the Canadian Shield are united in the appreciation they’re drawing from NBA scouts.

After seven years deeply immersed in the sub-culture that is Canadian basketball, Bachynski—a Calgary native—is still something of an enigma to me. Whether at a high school all-star game or a Canada Basketball training camp, I’ve always seemed to just miss crossing paths with him. He’s the seven-footer I can never seem track down.

Bachynski’s backstory lends itself to that elusiveness. After playing three years at Calgary’s Centennial High School, the seven-foot-two centre was set to attend Findlay Prep, an elite basketball factory in Henderson, Nevada, before a foot injury wiped out what would have been his senior season. If that weren’t enough of a blow to his long-term prospects, Bachynski followed up that lost season by taking the next two years off from competitive basketball.

A practicing Mormon, at the age of 18 Bachynski began a rite of passage that called for him to serve two years on a mission in a low-income, Spanish-speaking area of Miami, spreading the teachings of his religion with little contact with his parents aside from the occasional phone conversation. (Kyle Odegard wrote an amazing recap of Bachynski’s missionary work back in 2012.)

For a basketball player, three years removed from organized workouts and could be best described as career suicide. But the Arizona State coaching staff was committed to making this Canadian their centre of the future, and, when his mission concluded, Bachynski was ready to put in the work. To say their combined patience paidoff, would be an understatement.

Last season, Bachynski set the Pac-12 single season blocks record (120) and this year he became the conference’s all-time career blocks leader (296 and counting). Twice this month he has come through with game-saving blocks, first against Oregon and more recently against the then-No. 2 ranked Arizona Wildcats. Like many teams, the Sun Devils are fighting to stay in the hunt for a tournament berth, and their man in the middle has stepped up down the stretch with 60 points, 34 rebounds and 25 blocks over his last four games.

Bachynski was also a part of Canada’s Development team, which went 9-0 this past summer—making 2013 the first year he played competitive basketball year-round. The result of that extra court time has been a stellar senior season and increasing interest from the NBA, with many observers pegging him as a second-round pick in the stacked 2014 Draft.

Sitting third on the NCAA’s shot-blocking list, Montreal’s Khem Birch will also get serious second round consideration as we get closer to the draft.

Birch transferred to UNLV partway through his freshman season at Pittsburgh. In Pennsylvania, he had been slotted in as the team’s starting centre despite having been a McDonald’s All American at the power forward spot. When the opportunity to move to the Runnin’ Rebels more up-tempo system, Birch jumped at it and, after missing time due to transfer rules, he has flourished in the Mountain West Conference.

Standing just six-foot-nine, the reigning Mount West Conference Defensive Player of the Year relies on his quickness and wingspan to control the paint. It’s a combination that seems to work well for him as he’s finished just shy of a triple double a handful of times this season. He’s also averaging a near double-double—11.4 points and 9.5 boards—this season and has recorded three or more blocks in 15 of his 26 games.

While he certainly makes his presence felt on defense, Birch’s game has evolved to the point that he can bring the ball up in transition, which makes him attractive at the next level as a sort of ‘point forward’ or, at the very least, a big with a nice passing touch. He’s also been immortalized in the stands by UNLV’s student section, who debuted ‘Khem Kong’ in January.

I first interviewed Birch at the 2011 McDonald’s All American game in Chicago. I talked to him and his mother about flying under the radar coming out of Quebec, a basketball hotbed that never gets the media spotlight it deserves. It’s something he and Bachynski are doing to this day—and to great effect.

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