Tears were not streaming down Khem Birch’s face. There was no reason to get carried away. But he was getting emotional and feeling sentimental, even about a basketball game in July.
Birch could feel it as soon as he walked into the Thomas &Mack Center on Saturday.
“I’m glad to be home,” he said. “I almost got teary eyed a little bit coming in here. It’s like I was back in college.”
He was not greeted by a fired-up student section or introduced to a fireworks show. The upper deck of the arena was curtained off, and the lower bowl was less than half full.
He’s not a star at UNLV anymore. He’s No. 44 for the Washington Wizards, a rookie fighting for a roster spot and trying to prove something in the NBA Summer League.
In late April, he declared for the draft, forgoing his senior season with the Rebels. In late June, he went undrafted. But Birch has a half-full outlook.
He’s sticking to his decision with no regrets.
“The Wizards like me a lot, so I’m on a team that likes me,” he said. “I’m going to play a lot and see if I can make the team.”
Birch said he made a “really tough” decision in April. He realized the Rebels could be a Top 25 team if he returned to play for coach Dave Rice and with a heralded recruiting class. He understood the risk he was taking and weighed it against the potential reward of developing into a first-round pick next summer.
“But what if I came back and was not a first-round pick? I would have been a year older and been the same type of player,” Birch said.
“I’m younger, and I’m making money. Las Vegas is like my second home. I love Coach Rice and the coaching staff, and I love the players. But I wanted to take my talents to the next level.”
Birch’s summer league debut was a decent start. He made his first four shots — all layups and dunks — and finished 4-for-5 from the field with eight points and two blocked shots to help the Wizards defeat the Atlanta Hawks 90-74.
The downside was that in 22 minutes, he did not grab a rebound and picked up eight fouls, two shy of fouling out.
“He got every rebound in training camp. I don’t think he had a rebound today,” said Sam Cassell, the Wizards’ summer league coach. “He’s definitely going to hear that from me tomorrow about getting some rebounds. But he’ll be fine. Guys who have energy always find a way to have a job in this league.”
After the draft, the Wizards repeatedly called Birch’s agent, Mike George, in an effort to sign the 6-foot-9-inch power forward as a free agent. Washington needs defensive help on its front line, and Birch figured that was his best shot to make a roster.
“I am what I am. I’m a rebounder and an energy player,” said Birch, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West. “I feel like if I don’t make it, it was not meant to be.”
He said he’s willing to play in the NBA Development League, collecting a paycheck and competing against better players than he would have faced in college.
After a brief training camp and one summer league game, he noticed the difference in a new level of competition. As a junior at UNLV, he averaged 11.5 points and 10.2 rebounds. But he left college early, and this is the real world.
“It’s a lot faster and a lot more physical,” he said. “It’s very intense. We go two-a-days, we run all the time, and the coaches don’t even care. It’s a good experience. This is my first game. I’m going to be better in my second game.”
Most players see summer as an opportunity to audition for every NBA team. Birch is focused on making one team.
“I’m going to be loyal to the Wizards,” he said. “I’m kind of still angry that a lot of teams didn’t pick me.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.