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UNLV’s Birch looking like a second-round draft pick

When rolling the dice two months ago, Khem Birch was hoping to land somewhere in the second round of the NBA Draft. The odds seem to be turning slightly in his favor.

Birch has been moving up on draft boards due to solid workouts in recent weeks, and the 6-foot-9-inch power forward from UNLV has a realistic shot to hear his name called Thursday.

“Mid to late second round,” Birch said of his expectations. “But you never know in the draft.”

It was a jarring setback for the Rebels when Birch announced he was surrendering his senior season. His decision has been criticized and questioned, but it was a gamble he wanted to take.

One longtime NBA scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Birch made a “terrible decision” because he probably could have been a first-round pick next year.

“I thought it would be best if Birch stayed for another year,” the scout said. “But I think he is probably going to get drafted. It might be 50-50 on him.”

The same scout said Roscoe Smith, another junior forward who left UNLV to declare for the draft, has little to no chance of being picked.

Birch has a chance because of his ability to run the floor, rebound and be a defensive menace. 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 last season, when he started 32 of 33 games.

According to Kenpom.com, Birch ranked 25th in the nation in blocked-shot rate and 32nd in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.

“Those two numbers give him a chance of being drafted,” the scout said. “The analytics guys will like him a lot. He’s going to be off the ball and crashing the boards. He’s a hell of an offensive rebounder. And apparently his workouts have gone well.

“One factor I figure he’s got to overcome is probably the Anthony Bennett hangover. But that’s a guess.”

Birch, from Montreal, is a former McDonald’s All-American who transferred from Pittsburgh during the 2011-12 season. Bennett, Birch’s friend and another Canadian, left UNLV after his freshman season and was the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft.

But Bennett’s rookie season with Cleveland was a bust, as he played in only 52 games and averaged 4.2 points. There is no indication Bennett’s slide will work against Birch.

Chad Ford, an NBA Draft analyst for ESPN, ranked Birch as the No. 59 prospect in the draft in late April and has moved him up to No. 42. He has not written off Bennett.

“I heard Bennett is finally in great shape. I still think he has a lot of potential,” Ford said. “If he really works hard this summer, he could still be a good pick for the Cavs.”

Birch’s only obvious limitations are on the offensive end away from the rim. He shot 26.7 percent on jumpers last season.

“I’m a defensive player. In the NBA, that’s my role,” Birch said. “What I’m trying to show scouts is I can shoot the ball.”

Toronto and Washington are known to be interested in Birch in the second round. In a mock draft on NBAdraft.net, Birch is projected to go No. 42 to Houston.

His 7-1 wingspan is a plus, as is his 35½-inch vertical leap. He is slight for the power forward position at 210 pounds but is attractive to NBA teams because of his ability to be an athletic rim defender.

“I’m confident that Khem will get picked,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “He has worked out for a lot of teams, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on him.

“People like how hard he works and the progress he has made since his sophomore season. The other thing is he’s a good young man, and people have talked about that, as well.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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