After several weeks of what he called “careful consideration,” Khem Birch made a curious call. UNLV needed him, and the NBA was not asking for him, but the junior forward took the jump anyway.
Birch announced Thursday he is declaring for the NBA Draft, leaving his future in doubt while dealing the Rebels a setback.
“After talking at length with my family, I have decided to pursue my professional career,” Birch said in a statement released by the school. “It was a tough decision, one that I thought about for a very long time.”
The 6-foot-9-inch Birch is considered a potential second-round pick, and he might go undrafted. The NBA deadline to declare is Sunday, and Birch took most of the allowed time to consider his options before informing coach Dave Rice of his decision.
“Khem told me it was a very, very difficult decision for him for a lot of reasons,” Rice said. “He loves Las Vegas, loved his experience here and loved his teammates. We wish him great success. I support Khem 100 percent.”
Birch, while limited offensively, was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West. He averaged 11.5 points and 10.2 rebounds to go with 124 blocked shots this past season, when he started 32 of 33 games.
He recently went to Houston and spent a week at John Lucas’ camp for pro prospects, and he sought feedback from NBA scouts on his status for the June 26 draft. Birch became the 38th early-entry candidate in a deep draft.
“I don’t know what the deciding factor was for Khem. I don’t have the answer for that,” Rice said. “He had all the information we could gather.”
Birch, from Montreal, is a former McDonald’s All-American who transferred to UNLV from Pittsburgh during the 2011-12 season. He played in 59 games for the Rebels and finished with 192 blocks, two shy of tying the program record.
Anthony Bennett, Birch’s friend and another Canadian, left UNLV after his freshman season and was the No. 1 pick in last year’s NBA Draft.
The Rebels have lost three juniors since the conclusion of a 20-13 season. Roscoe Smith, a 6-8 forward, declared for the draft on April 4, and guard Bryce Dejean-Jones announced plans to transfer to Iowa State.
Dejean-Jones, Birch and Smith were the Rebels’ top three scorers, and Smith and Birch were their top rebounders. Smith is not projected to be drafted.
If Birch had returned for the 2014-15 season, UNLV and San Diego State were set to be the clear-cut favorites in the conference. The Aztecs are likely to take that role now.
Rice has signed a highly touted recruiting class led by Findlay Prep shooting guard Rashad Vaughn, a McDonald’s All-American, and Dwayne Morgan, a 6-7 small forward from Baltimore.
Goodluck Okonoboh, a 6-9 power forward from Wilbraham, Mass., is a shot-blocking rim protector who figures to fill Birch’s spot. Chris Wood, a 6-10 forward, and Demetris Morant, a 6-9 forward, could get more opportunities to contribute as sophomores.
“Khem certainly had a terrific junior year and he’s an experienced player, so it will be difficult to replace the things he does,” Rice said. “But I have a lot of confidence in the guys who are returning and a lot of confidence in the players we signed. We have a good group. We’re going to put guys in positions where they can be successful.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.