Forward sparkles in league debut

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Pitt freshman Khem Birch was the main attraction Monday night at Greentree Sportsplex, and that was evident by the size of the crowd that jammed into the gym to watch his first game in the Summer Pro-Am League.

"I'm a little nervous to be honest," Birch said before he took the court for his team's 69-63 loss to a team led by Pitt standout Dante Taylor. "I know what the expectations are and I am ready for them, but I just want to relax and play my game. I want to do the things I am good at and just get better."

Birch was the main attraction on the first night for a lot of reasons, but mostly because he is one of the highest-rated basketball players to sign with the Panthers.

He is ranked as the second-best power forward prospect in the country and the ninth overall prospect by Rivals.com. There are a lot of scouts who believe he could be a one-and-done type of player.

Birch, at 6 feet 9, is still a little slim but he will give the Panthers an athletic power forward who can shoot. He has a lot of nice moves around the basket and most important -- especially considering the style coach Jamie Dixon prefers -- he can defend.

His defense was on full display Monday night as he blocked eight shots, including two shots by Taylor, who should share the court with Birch when the season begins in the fall.

Unfortunately, fans who were hoping to see a dominant display on the offensive side were probably disappointed as he scored only four points and grabbed just two rebounds.

But Birch's talent was evident, his ability to jump was easy to see and the two baskets he did score showed different parts of his game -- he hit a layup despite getting fouled hard by Taylor and he made a nice move to get to the basket on his other field goal.

Birch, who was born in Montreal but played at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., said he isn't worried about trying to live up to expectations every time he takes the court. He said he knows there will be a bit of an adjustment period for him as he tries to fit in with the Panthers.

"I know there is pressure on me, there is always pressure," Birch said, "and hopefully I can live up to those expectations. I haven't played basketball in two weeks [before Monday] because I had a lot of school obligations, so I'm just happy to get out there and start playing.

"The big thing is I need to get my confidence up and work on my cardio and getting in shape, but I'm ready for this challenge, I've worked for it my whole life."

Although most of the spectators watched Birch while he was on the court, Dixon likely had a closer eye on him than most because it is his job to get the freshman ready to play by the time the regular season rolls around.

But in typical Dixon fashion, he did his best to try to downplay the significance of Birch's arrival on campus and said his talented freshman has a long way to go before he is ready for the Big East Conference every night.

"I don't read too much into what goes on in this league just because this is really only a first step for these guys, and it is a small piece of what they are going to do," Dixon said. "I mean, there is a lot of work to be done, and this gives these guys an opportunity to play a couple of times per week, and most importantly, the fans love it so I think it is a great thing.

"I just told Khem to do what he had to do in the classroom and get here and just work hard and things will work out fine. He's got a nice touch around the basket but you have to remember this is summer league and summer league is dominated by guards, so he isn't going to score a lot of points."

Although Birch was the headliner, one of his teammates -- Monday night and with the Panthers ---- stole the show Incoming freshman point guard John Johnson of Burlington, N.J., scored 26 points and had six assists.

Johnson and Birch are two of four Panthers freshmen who made their debut. Malcolm Gilbert and Durand Johnson also played in the tripleheader.


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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