Rim-protecting Khem Kong someone Rebels can count on

It was a fictional character, a giant monster that transcended the film industry by becoming featured in cartoons, comics, video games, theme park rides and on various merchandise.

I don’t remember him blocking many shots, though.

“He has such an impact on the defensive end,” UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice said. “He is very, very hard to score against. Any time you go in there, you know Khem Kong is somewhere near.”

The movie “King Kong” grossed $547 million worldwide.

Khem Kong is as consistent a player as the Rebels have this season.

It’s also funny to see Rice say Khem Kong with a straight face.

UNLV plays at Air Force today against a team that back-cut and shot its way to victory at the Thomas &Mack Center in January.

You can surrender layups or jumpers to the Falcons and still win.

You can’t surrender both and have any chance.

Khem Birch can be the reason there is no repeat to UNLV’s earlier 75-68 loss, a junior forward on his way to being named the Mountain West’s defensive player of the year for a second time.

It’s maddening to defend Air Force, having to switch all screens and guard against back-cuts, a strategy that often takes Birch away from the basket and negates his best skill.

UNLV needs to solve that issue today — run more zone, selectively switch on some action but not all, anything different from the last meeting — or risk a third straight loss to the Falcons.

But whether the result is good or bad, win or lose, up or down, one thing remains steady for UNLV this season: Rice almost always has something positive to say about Birch after games.

He remains a work in progress offensively, as limited some nights scoring at the rim as he is dominant protecting it.

Birch already runs the floor as well as most who wear NBA uniforms, and his skill to block and alter shots is as good as anyone else in college.

He ranks third nationally in blocks with a 3.7 average, and yet it’s impossible to gauge how many shots his presence changes. You see it all the time against UNLV, opposing players reaching the key and suddenly altering how they attack.

“That’s a huge stat that, if kept, he would no doubt lead the country in,” Rice said. “Guys just aren’t as aggressive driving when they know Khem is there. I think once he gets to the NBA, he can have a long career.

“He is really versatile — can guard the post, is a good help-side defender, gets out on the floor and guards guys off the dribble. And he has worked incredibly hard at his offensive game.”

It’s the one area, and a major one at that, many believe should have Birch thinking only of returning to UNLV for his senior season and swatting away the rumors that have him today as a coin-flip decision whether to make himself eligible for the NBA Draft.

There have been signs of improvement. Opponents double-team Birch more, sag on him more, at least appear concerned that he can do something productive offensively.

Birch said recently he is leaning toward returning to school on a team in which two others juniors (Roscoe Smith and Bryce Dejean-Jones) could also depart to pursue professional careers in a year that the NBA might offer its strongest draft in decades.

It would be a huge risk for all three, and yet one owns a skill (blocking shots) that could land him on an NBA roster.

Birch averages 11.5 points on 51 percent shooting, the latter a number that should be better given how close he attempts most shots.

He has trouble finishing plays, a fact scouts believe points to his lack of lower-body strength.

Theirs is a contention that if Birch left school a year early and actually made a team, he would struggle mightily to match the league’s physical style — that he would be thrown around most nights like King Kong did that airplane while standing atop the Empire State Building.

But they are also intrigued by this: There isn’t a better teammate on UNLV than Birch. He is as thoughtful and sincere a kid as the Rebels have had in years. His heart is as big as his wingspan, a young man who at times can be as naive as he is compassionate.

There is no phony to him.

“Khem truly cares only about winning,” Rice said. “He always puts the team ahead of himself. He understands and identifies that he needs to become a more efficient offensive player, but he’s a great kid who is willing to work as hard as it takes.”

Nothing fictional about that.

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.

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