Eager for an early glimpse of the highest-rated hoops recruit ever to sign with Pittsburgh, hundreds of Panthers fans jammed into the Greentree Sportsplex on Monday night to watch forward Khem Birch make his Summer Pro-Am debut.
What they saw was an athletic, high-energy big man more ready to make an impact on defense than offense.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Birch blocked eight shots, including two from future teammate Dante Taylor. Birch also scored a modest four points and grabbed just two rebounds, no surprise considering the McDonald's All-American's defense has always been his greatest strength and up-tempo summer-league games are rarely conducive to big men who want the ball in the post.
"I'm a little nervous to be honest," Birch told the Post-Gazette. "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."
How much of an impact Birch can make next season will be one of the most intriguing storylines in the Big East. Birch could make an already versatile Pittsburgh frontcourt flat-out scary if he's Big East-ready, but the Panthers have traditionally succeeded by being the rare junior- and senior-driven program.
Maybe Birch breaks that mold, blossoms as a freshman and opens the door for future McDonald's All-Americans to come to Pittsburgh. Or perhaps it takes a couple years for the 6-foot-9 forward's offense to catch up with his defense and he follows in the footsteps of past Panthers stars who didn't truly shine until they were upperclassmen.
It's silly to draw too many conclusions from a summer-league game, but it was several of Birch's future teammates who flashed the most promise on Monday night.
Sophomore forward Talib Zanna erupted for 28 points and 11 rebounds in his opening Pro-Am game of the summer. And incoming freshman John Johnson tallied 26 points and six assists, displaying impressive 3-point range in the process.