January 18, 2019, 6:20 pm
Hello Hoop Ballers and welcome back to our International Spotlight weekly feature. With injuries piling up lately it’s that time of the year when teams have to dig deep into their bench and find consistent production from their role players.
James Nunnally and Khem Birch are a pair of undrafted guys that have made a name for themselves overseas but are relatively unknown to the NBA audience. I’m going to try and shed some light into their game today as they are both deep-league specialists who bring different characteristics to the table.
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An Experienced Swingman
Nunnally auditioned with a few teams during the summer before signing with the Wolves after a successful year with Fenerbache Ulker in Turkey where he averaged 10.3 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 53/51/89 splits in 56 games. The 2017 EuroLeague and Turkish League champion is a great basketball story as he spent every July from 2012 through 2016 on an NBA Summer League roster.
Nunnally led his high school, Weston Ranch, to two Valley Oak League championships where as a senior in 2007, he averaged 22.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.2 blocks. He was an All-State player, the Valley Oak League MVP and and a McDonald’s All-American nominee but he wasn’t heavily-recruited and played his college ball at UC Santa Barbara. After going undrafted in 2012, he bounced around from overseas to the then D-League back to overseas before emerging as arguably Europe’s best 3-and-D wing in the last few years.
Perfect Fit for the Rockets System
Nunnally shot a ridiculous 55.4 percent from the 3-point line over the last two seasons overseas, connecting on 208 of his 400 attempts from deep. At 6’7”, he has good size to play both wing spots, and his primary role on offense has always been to spread the floor mostly as a weak-side shooter, drifting around the wing and the corner. Here is Nunnally with some exceptional footwork, moving to the far corner as James Harden penetrates the Nets defense. Some textbook material here as both the passer and the are shooter are synced. I can’t wait to see more of that in the upcoming weeks.
Nunnally is also capable of playing with the ball in his hands, often flying past by slow defenders who are late to close out on him, plus he is a sneaky rim finisher even thought he doesn’t have the body flexibility to finish tough shots like James Harden does. And while I don’t expect NBA teams to run plays for him, he can operate the side pick-and-roll to keep the offense moving and is crafty at creating separation by dribbling through screens and manufacturing quick pull-offs, step-back shots or catch and shoot opportunities.
What was able to attract the attention of NBA scouts was Nunnally’s athleticism, size and length as he gave the best European scorers problems. He’s not a crazy athlete, but he is smart, has a nice feel for the game and is enough of an athlete to run the court and defend consistently on the perimeter. His length allows him to be disruptive in passing lanes but he often acts as a weak-side defender.
One thing that he will struggle with at the NBA level is the ability to chase shooters off screens as he lacks the foot speed and the body frame required to navigate through screens. Look at him struggling to follow through Joe Harris as he finds himself on the floor while the Nets go to Jarret Allen instead.
The Rockets have stopped switching on defense recently and that will also help Nunnally as he struggles against smaller, quicker players and he often got exposed in the Euroleague when having to guard guards like current Celtic Brad Wanamaker.
I have talked in the past about how 3-and-D wings in the NBA are becoming a necessity to the point where teams can never have enough. Nunnally fits this role perfectly, he is on a cheap 10-day deal and he will likely play for a Rockets team in need of more 3-point shooters. The Wolves didn’t give him the opportunity he was looking for but I’m confident that this didn’t affect him at all as he earned his way onto an NBA roster accumulating plenty of experience by playing in the G-League, the Greek HEBA 1, the Puerto Rican BSN, the Israeli BSL, the Spanish ACB, the Italian Lega A, the Turkish BSL and the Euroleague.
Another Undrafted Specialist
Birch is a Canadian citizen who attended high school in America and was a McDonald’s All-American before joining the University of Pittsburgh and then transferring to UNLV midway through the season. His lack of a reliable offensive game made it hard for him to get drafted in 2014 and after a Summer League stint he ended up playing in the G-League, averaging 11.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.8 blocks and 0.7 in 52 games on his way to making it to the G-League All-Rookie and All-Defensive teams.
After extremely successful back-to-back seasons in Turkey and Greece, Birch surprisingly opted out of his contract with Olympiacos last year in order to sign a $2.2 million deal with the Magic in July of 2017. He was brought in as a deep reserve but he was impressive in the limited minutes he got, and for a team that has lacked consistent defensive play, Birch felt like the best defender on the team.
His play was exceptional especially during last week’s game against the Celtics where he repeatedly stopped his opponents from scoring baskets around the rim. Look at how he defends the pick-and-roll outside the arc and then is able to run back to the paint and block Jaylen Brown’s shot.
Birch is being used as a center in the NBA even though he is a little bit undersized, but without a consistent jumper and a consistent offensive game it’s hard to play him at the four where he will have to deal with a lot more athletic bigs. Unfortunately for him, the Magic are loaded at center with Nikola Vucevic, Mohamed Bamba and even Timofey Mozgov and the Canadian has struggled to play this year until recently when a sore left foot sidelined Bamba.
In his final 17 games last year, Birch averaged 5.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in 17.7 minutes per game. The Magic played him as a power forward and he quickly emerged as a fan favorite due to his energetic play and the highlight blocks. With a 7’1” wingspan and a 35.5-inch vertical, Birch is an exceptional shot blocker (he averaged 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes at UNLV), a solid team defender, a glue guy that plays hard who also has good recovery speed, erases shots from the weak side, covers a lot of ground, and generally is disruptive to opposing offenses. And even though he barely plays, he is probably the best pick-and-roll defender on the team, an area where the Magic have struggled badly the last few years.
Limited Offensive Game
Birch’s offensive game is nothing special as he is limited to the occasional jumper and a few post moves while he’s best at scoring with put-backs and rolls to the rim. Look at how the Rockets fail to put a body on the big man as he scores with the easy tip.
And even though he is a below average offensive player and it is highly unlikely that he can significantly improve, his defensive and rebounding ability is something that will always earn him minutes while a lot of his contributions don’t show up on the stat sheet. Against the Celtics for example, Birch set six screens that led directly to 16 points by Magic teammates. With the return of Mo Bamba imminent, Steve Clifford will have to make a tough decision as he badly wants to make the playoffs, even more than the Magic as an organization, and it will be interesting to see whether he continues to get solid rotation minutes.
Hope you enjoyed learning more about a couple more international guys of our league and feel free to take a flyer on them in deeper leagues. Reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of January 18th.