Magic’s Birch suiting up for Canada an endorsement for national team

Khem-Birch

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Canada's Khem Birch dunks the ball during their their group stage match against Australia at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Dongguan in southern China's Guangdong province, Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. (Zhu Zheng/Xinhua via AP)

While the narrative of Canada’s FIBA World Cup outing has been about the players who aren’t here, Khem Birch would love to be part of a great story about players who are.

A three-point shooting, ball-handling endorsement for suiting up for his country.

The 26-year-old from Montreal and Cory Joseph are Canada’s only NBA players in China. And while the Canadians’ hopes of advancing were snuffed out with a loss Tuesday to Lithuania, Birch said the trip has been worth it.

"Great experience," Birch said after practice Wednesday. "Championship-level coaching and lots of confidence. I’m doing things I have never done in the NBA. That’s what a lot of guys don’t understand. Coach (Nick) Nurse gives you the confidence and freedom to do basically everything you want in the system you have here. I’m lucky."

What kinds of things?

"Shooting threes in the game. Dribbling the ball. Post-ups," Birch said.

The six-foot-nine Orlando Magic forward is handling the ball more than he ever has in his career.

"Yes, exactly," Birch said. "Coach Nurse gives you the freedom to do that stuff. A lot of guys say they want to stay home and work on their games, but there is no better way to do that than in an actual game and I’m doing that right now."

Nurse, who assumed the Canadian team job less than a month after leading the Toronto Raptors to the NBA championship, said it’s crucial that players like Birch enjoy their time with the national team.

"Now that we only have a couple (NBA players) left, yeah, those guys have to have a positive experience," Nurse said. "I hope most of the guys I coach feel like they’re learning something or have a positive experience or all of them. That’s what we try to do. Make them better players and further their knowledge of the game and, as I always say, increase their value in the marketplace."

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Some players are dissuaded from playing for the national program by their agents or professional teams. But Birch made up his own mind to commit to Canada.

"I let Khem Birch dictate what he wants to do and Khem Birch decided to play for his country because I want to go to the Olympics," he said — referring to himself in the third person eight times in an interview. "Regardless of whether I was fourth string, fifth string, third string I was going to come here and represent my country.

"Luckily for me no-one showed up and I’m starting," he said in reference to Canada’s NBA no-shows. "Unfortunately we didn’t advance and now we have to take another route to the Olympics."

Birch averaged 4.8 points and 3.8 points in 12.9 minutes a game with Orlando last season. But his decision to play for Canada this summer when so many of his Canadian NBA colleagues opted out wasn’t just about the Magic.

"I’m doing it for my career and basically for 29 other teams just because in this business you never know," he said. "I’m trying to be the most complete basketball player I can be — that’s what I’m trying to achieve."

How’s his body holding up after seven exhibition games and two World Cup games on three continents?

"Obviously I’m sore but that is the nature of basketball," Birch said. "Right now I would probably be sore in Orlando working out with those other guys and not playing games. So this is a good kind of sore and I can’t wait to get back on the court (Thursday, when Canada plays Senegal in its final preliminary-round game)."

After Canada’s game against Senegal, the team heads to Shanghai for two important classification games. Canada needs a strong finish to earn a spot in one of four second-chance Olympic qualifying tournaments next June.

With the disappointing turnout of NBA players this summer, it remains to be seen who suits up next year. Will Birch reach out to anyone in a recruiting effort?

"I only dictate what goes on in Khem Birch’s career," he said.

Count Birch in though.

"I’m not worried about other guys," he said. "But regardless, I know I’m going to show up."

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