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Leonard’s progress something for UNLV’s Birch to shoot for


Bismack Biyombo went ahead of him. So did Jimmer Fredette and Markieff Morris and Alec Burks. Fourteen names were called during the 2011 NBA Draft before Kawhi Leonard made his way to the stage for a congratulatory handshake from then-commissioner David Stern.

Before the Indiana Pacers drafted Leonard.

Before they traded his rights to the San Antonio Spurs.

Before the perfect fit was discovered.

It doesn’t always happen this way, that a player whose game in college includes some obvious weaknesses can so easily translate into the starting lineup of one of the NBA’s best teams.

Takes some fortune. Takes a lot of hard work.

But the Leonard who again will help lead the Spurs in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City tonight, who has in three seasons emerged as arguably one of the top 15 players in the league, who still has the hands the size of Malta and talks less than a mute, is an example by which other aspiring pros can hope to emulate.

With this provision: It’s all about the fit.

Whether he would have blossomed with the Pacers or any of the other teams that selected ahead of them that 2011 night as he has with the Spurs is unknown but doubtful.

San Antonio has advantages others don’t. Best coach. Best front office. Best plan for success.

The comfort of playing alongside three Hall of Famers to begin one’s career also can’t be overstated enough. Leonard is unique in that he prefers to exist within a cloud of anonymity, not a simple task when shining on one of the world’s brightest sports stages and yet made easier by the presence of teammates Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

“Everyone always said Kawhi was too small to be a power forward and not skilled enough to be a small forward and that he wouldn’t be able to shoot it well enough,” said Brian Dutcher, associate head coach at San Diego State, who tutored Leonard for the player’s two years with the Aztecs. “I just always thought he was a player. He was driven to be a player.

“Nothing surprises me about how much a guy (can improve). The one thing NBA people say is that they can improve shooting because it’s a full-time job now and the guys are in the gym all the time and they’re putting in the hours. If a guy has work ethic and isn’t completely broken, they can become better shooters.”

Words that should give Khem Birch hope.

Birch isn’t Leonard. Not close. One (Leonard) was a projected NBA lottery pick the minute he departed San Diego State early and made himself available for the draft. He was always going to be selected in the first round and receive the guaranteed contract that comes with such placement.

Birch left UNLV a season early and is hoping to be selected in the mid-to-late second round next month. He in no way is a lock to make and then contribute to an NBA team.

His strengths are similar to Leonard’s when the latter came out early, which is to say at the defensive end. They’re different players, different body types, different skill sets. But defensive all the same. Neither is overly gifted at the offensive end. Neither will have departed college with anything close to a reliable shot.

But while he is far behind Leonard in many aspects that might eventually make a successful pro, Birch owns the sort of mindset that could help him find a spot in the league.

“I wouldn’t mind spending time in the (NBA’s Development League) for a couple years and then moving up,” Birch told reporters recently at the league’s combine in Chicago. “It would better prepare me playing against other pros than in college. I have to get better. Right now, I can bring energy and defensive leadership, but struggle offensively. I progressed from year to year in college, and I’ll work as hard as it takes.”

He needs the right fit. Birch might only be a serious option for a few teams, but players such as Leonard prove it only takes one to allow someone the best opportunity to succeed.

Think about it: In 2011, many were convinced Bismack Biyombo could grow into an NBA star.

He was the seventh pick overall. Today, he has career averages of 4.3 points and 6.0 rebounds. He started just nine games for Charlotte this season, and his numbers have decreased with each passing year.

Eight picks later, Indiana selected Kawhi Leonard.

Minutes later, the Pacers traded his rights to the Spurs.

The best fit. The perfect fit.

I’m not certain such a thing exists for Khem Birch.

But if it does, evidence suggests he can turn doubts into results.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.