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Playing for Toronto Raptors a ‘surreal moment’ for Canadian centre Khem Birch

NEW YORK — Pulling on a Toronto Raptors jersey didn’t quite feel real for Khem Birch.

The Canadian centre grew up watching the team play on TV with his dad, even as the Raptors struggled through the early 2000s.

“But we always supported them just because they’re the home team and that’s why it means so much to me,” Birch said Sunday before stepping on the court for his Raptors debut in New York.

“My dad used to always complain about the team, yell at the TV and stuff, and now I’m on the team. So this is just a surreal moment.”

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The 28-year-old joined fellow Montreal forward Chris Boucher in the Raptors front court after the Orlando Magic waived Birch earlier this week.

Birch tweeted “A dream come true” about joining the Raptors.

“Playing for this team means a lot to me,” he said Sunday. “I’m just so happy to be here right now.”

The six-foot-nine Birch was averaging 5.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game this season with Orlando, but had been keen for a bigger role with more playing time.

He should get that with the Raptors. Toronto’s front court has been a glaring weakness this season since the departure of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka last off-season.

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And there are places Birch can grow his game, said Raptors coach Nick Nurse.

“He’s a rebounder, screener, roller, needs to be a good defensive player in that role and protect the rim some, execute the schemes, et cetera, finish at the rim when given an opportunity,” he said.

“But doing that at a high level with energy consistently night after night and in more minutes than 10 or 12 in a particular game.”

Birch was one of two NBA players _ Detroit guard Cory Joseph was the other _ who played for Nurse and Canada at the 2019 World Cup in China. Birch has said he wants to play in the Olympics, and intends to play in Canada’s last-chance Olympic qualifier in Victoria this summer.

Birch said he’s looking forward to reuniting with a coach who “gives great confidence to his players.”

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“He has a culture, I think, that’s pass first and if you play defence and then let the offence come naturally,” the centre said. “There’s just like a flow and that’s what made me more comfortable for Team Canada. You don’t really showcase one person over the other, everyone gets involved and that’s what gives me great confidence.”

Birch played college basketball at Pittsburgh and UNLV. After going undrafted, he played in the NBA G League, then Turkey and Greece before he signed with the Magic in 2017. He was part of the Orlando squad that lost to Toronto in five games in the first round of the playoffs in the Raptors’ championship run in 2019.

Set to become a free agent this summer, Birch said he’s not focusing on securing a new contract.

“I just want to have a good playoff push,” he said. “So that’s my goal right now. I’m not really worried about free agency, I just wanna help this team win basketball games.”

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