TORONTO – Khem Birch took a pass from DeAndre’ Bembry in the right corner with the shot clock winding down, got his feet set behind the line, and took the open triple without hesitation. Bang. The net didn’t even move.
About 11 minutes later, Birch took a pass, handed it over to Jalen Harris and then casually relocated to the left corner. The ball found its way back to him and it was an elementary catch-and-shoot situation for Birch, who, again, didn’t hesitate and splashed home another triple.
These two Birch three-pointers were from April 29 — his best game of the 2020–21 campaign and certainly his most effective as a member of the Toronto Raptors as he scored 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting, including a 2-for-2 mark from deep.
He, of course, signed with the Raptors on April 11 after getting bought out by the Orlando Magic. And in the 19 games he played with Toronto, Birch appeared to be a completely different player than the one from his first three-and-a-half seasons in Orlando, flashing an offensive skill package that had never been seen before.
Or, at least, one that had never been seen by fans and members of the media.
Because, truthfully, the expanded range Birch showed with the Raptors is something that he’s been working on for a long time, and a lot of the credit for the results can be traced back to one chance meeting with Henry Woo Jr.
Woo was just a 20-year-old college kid when he first came in contact with Birch four years ago. Playing college hoops for Division III Concordia University Chicago after a high school career at IMG Academy alongside the likes of Jonathan Isaac, Woo got a chance to meet Birch through a friend of his, Erick Green, who had played with Birch at Olympiacos in Greece.
It was a meeting that would prove fateful for both parties.
Despite being in the thick of playing college basketball at the time, Woo had picked up the habit of making film breakdowns for his basketball friends playing professionally. And shortly after meeting Birch, he cut some tape from his rookie season with the Magic as a favour. After that, Birch came to him with an interesting — if intimidating — proposition.
“He was like, ‘What do you think about training?’ And I kind of was like, ‘I really don’t do basketball training. I’m 21 years old. I really have no experience with professionals.’ Because when you work with those type of calibre players you’re now responsible for their development,” said Woo in a recent interview with Sportsnet. “But he was like, ‘Give it a try and if it doesn’t work out, it’s OK and we’ll go our separate ways.’”
Considering they’re still working together four years later, it has obviously become a fruitful relationship that’s worked out for both parties.
From Birch’s perspective, the growth he’s shown from when he first started working with Woo to now has been astronomic, particularly in regards to his ever-improving jump shot.
“Between now and three years ago? It’s like night and day,” said Woo of Birch’s jumper. “These were like two different things. And he’s got a long way to go…. But when you look at a lot of his shots, they’re not bad misses. They’re short or they’re long, but they’re not bad.”
Additionally, working with Woo helped Birch develop skills that he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to if he’d just stuck with Orlando’s plan for him. While with the Magic, Birch’s role was to set screens, defend the rim and get the occasional garbage bucket, but chances of a starting — or starring — role seemed remote.
“One thing about Khem is he’s going to do whatever the team asks him to do, no matter if he agrees with it or not. Khem’s a team-first guy and that’s why everyone loves him. He’s gonna do whatever the team asks.”
But Woo always knew there was more to Birch’s game. And when the Montreal native suited up for Team Canada during the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Nick Nurse opened his and Woo’s minds as to what else could be possible.
“I think after Team Canada, me and Khem were like, ‘Whoa!’ It was like, ‘It’s there,’ and we were able to see the big picture now of what Khem Birch can be in the NBA.”
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
After that revelation, Woo helped Birch focus on expanding his skills beyond what Orlando was asking him to do, just in case a situation like the one with Toronto this season presented itself.
“I had to tell Khem, ‘If you’re in Orlando forever, great. But you just never know. Trade deadline always happens, the buyout market always happens. So you just never know,” said Woo. “You want to make sure you’re not (just) growing your game for the Magic, but you’re growing your game for the 29 other teams in the NBA.”
With Birch landing with the Raptors — and the coach who had helped inspire his new skill expansion in the first place — things worked out better than Woo and Birch could have expected. And it resulted in career highs in minutes (30.4), points (11.9) and three-point attempts (1.6) per game. And that evolution happened without sacrificing his calling-card skills as he also scored career highs in rebounds (7.6), blocks (1.2) and steals (0.8) as well.
But, as mentioned before, this relationship between Birch and Woo isn’t just a one-way street. Woo has seen many benefits from the partnership himself.
When he started training Birch, he stopped his college basketball career short and even dropped out of school for a semester to focus all of his efforts on their work together. But the Canadian insisted he return to school to finish it up, something that will pay off as Woo will graduate in December with a sports and fitness degree.
Woo has also seen his clientele expand from just Birch to other NBA players such as Charlotte Hornets guard Grant Riller and Orlando Magic forward James Ennis III.
“Definitely his intensity and his passion,” said Ennis of what stands out about Woo as a trainer. “He’s pretty young, so he definitely has a lot of energy. But it was definitely his intensity that stands out, and he knows the game well.”
But more than anything professionally, the time Woo has spent with Birch has forged a bond between the two that won’t be easily broken.
“We've become best friends over the past three years,” said Birch during his end-of-season player availability with the Raptors. “At first it was kind of tough because I think he's five, seven years younger than me, but we've just been through it in the ups and downs, and he's always stuck around for me and he's always pushed me to go into the gym and develop.”
Added Woo: “Me and Khem laugh all the time because me and Khem are like brothers. We’re not brothers by blood, but I don’t think blood can make me and Khem any closer. And he’s really my best friend.”
And it all goes back to Birch putting his trust in a then-21-year-old basketball player who’d never trained anyone before.
“That was everything to me,” Woo said of Birch entrusting his NBA development and career to him. “When he told me, ‘I believe in you, Henry, and I trust everything that you’re doing and I believe in you as a person, as a trainer, as my friend, as my brother,’ just to get that vote of confidence was unbelievable for me. I’m just so grateful for Khem. And he hates to hear it, but I tell him all the time that he changed my life. So I’m just so thankful for him.”
While Woo grew up in Evanston, Ill., he was actually born in Seoul, South Korea, and got adopted by a Chinese father and white mother when he was just six months old. So, in a sense, he’s always had to find family of his own and in Birch he found himself the brother he never had growing up.
He describes his life and career as a “lucky” one.
“I think my story is just based on luck,” he said. “If Khem Birch never called me that day and never asked me to come out and train him, or I never met Erick, or Erick never helped me meet Khem, I would never be able to be in this position.”
Sure, luck may have played a factor in some of how Woo’s life has gone, but fate couldn’t have intervened without a little push on his part. As the old saying goes, sometimes you’ve just got to make your own luck, and that’s what Henry Woo has done for himself in just 24 years of life.
And if he’s managed to make it this far already, just imagine what the next 24 years will be like.