by Will Graves
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Khem Birch isn’t big on going with the flow.
The Pittsburgh freshman wants to stand out, badly. It’s why the former star at Notre Dame Academy (Fitchburg, Mass.) wore long sleeves underneath his jersey while playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game. It’s why he donned a white headband for the Jordan Brand Classic.
|PROMISING FRESHMAN—Pittsburgh’s Khem Birch goes up for a dunk in a three-player dunk contest after the annual Blue Gold intrasquad game Oct. 22 at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
It’s why his otherwise ho-hum hair now features a blonde streak that’s easily visible from the top of the Petersen Events Center.
“I just like to be different,” he said.
Not just in his sartorial or hairstyle choices either.
The top college basketball programs in the country spent three years heavily recruiting the athletic 6-foot-9 Canadian. They’re practically all there: Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio State, Connecticut, Syracuse. The list is long and distinguished.
Yet Birch opted for Pitt.
Coach Jamie Dixon has spent nearly a decade building the Panthers into a national power with a group of players short on star power but long on grit.
Birch is just the second McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Panthers, joining junior forward Dante Taylor. Birch insists he wasn’t trying to make a statement heading to Pitt into places with national championship banners hanging from the rafters.
“I just loved the coaching staff,” Birch said.
And the staff loves Birch’s potential. The key is giving him the room to live up to it.
“We know what’s coming and we know it takes time,” Dixon said. “It takes time for good players to play in good programs to get where they want to be.”
That doesn’t mean Dixon thinks Birch can’t have an impact this year. The Panthers lost three starters off a team that won the Big East regular season title last winter and a minor knee injury to senior forward Nasir Robinson could give Birch a chance to turn heads quickly.
Not that he’s in a hurry. Though he proved he could score in high school, averaging 18 points a game as a senior, Birch knows that’s not his job, at least not yet.
The quickest way to earn playing time at Pitt is by rebounding and playing defense. Birch is confident he can do both immediately.
“Those are things that just come naturally to me,” he said.
Dealing with hype isn’t quite so easy. There’s a certain level of pressure that comes with getting named all-everything. He’s not a fan.
“It was kind of upsetting because the expectations are so high,” he said. “People expect you to be like a one-and-done and try and do things like a senior would probably do.”
That’s not Birch’s style. He understands guard Ashton Gibbs is the team’s unquestioned leader and Robinson will lead the Panthers in toughness. He’s here to fill in the gaps until it’s time for him to take the next step.
For guidance he need only look to Taylor, who came in two years ago with a wave of fanfare. His numbers have be solid but not spectacular. He averaged 5.1 points and 4.5 rebounds as a sophomore and admits to hearing the chatter that he hasn’t lived up to the billing.
His advice to Birch: Cover your ears and go to work.
“Don’t feed into the media because they’re all going to come and be like, ‘Alright, he’s a McDonald’s All-American, he’s supposed to come in and contribute right away,’” Taylor said. “But it’s hard pressure for a freshman to come in … I told him to not pay attention to it, not try to go out there and do too much and progressively you’ll get better and better.”
That’s all Dixon expects, too. He is wary of the tag that comes with being named an All-American but believes Birch has the makeup not to get rattled.
“If you ask him, the first thing that comes to his mind is not what he was called or what somebody writes about him, it’s that he has to get better,” Dixon said. “That’s his belief. He knows that and that’s what he’s here to do. What you’ve done on high school, that’s not even what you’ve done, that’s just a label. It has nothing to do with what you become.”
Birch hopes to become part of the core that finally leads the Panthers to the Final Four. It won’t happen overnight, and that’s fine. He has no designs on leaving early.
At this point, he’d be happy getting a shot off in practice. Every foray to the rim involves the kind of body contact better reserved for a football field.
The lessons are painful, but they’re also part of the reason he came to Pitt.
“In high school I could just go up and score,” he said. “Now I have to go up strong…and that’s my goal, to get stronger every day.”
And stand out in the process.