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Ohio State standout Malaki Branham could be the steal of the draft for the Spurs

The 19-year old rookie is a talented three-level scorer with the potential to be more. He wakes up early and gets to work, and he simply won't stop smiling.

SAN ANTONIO — Malaki Branham was born in Columbus, Ohio, on May 12, 2003. About a month later, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected a kid from St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron with the first pick.

LeBron is still in the NBA almost two decades later, and SVSM has their first draft pick since King James.

Branham’s Fighting Irish won state championships in 2018 and 2021, and he thinks he should've had more. He was named Ohio Mr. Basketball as a senior, and he committed to Ohio State for his lone college season.

Watching the highlights from his 37-point performance in the state title game, you feel bad for the kids guarding him who look like they should be asking to copy your trigonometry homework.

One of Branham's most distinctive features is his beaming, 500 megawatt smile. He smiles like someone is actively tickling him. He told KENS 5's Casey Viera that his smile comes from his mom, who is always lighting up the room.

“On the basketball court, I’m having fun. If you’re not having fun then why are you doing it?” Off the court I’m a smiley laughy kind of person once you get to know me,” he said on draft night.

Branham came on strong and played consistently in the second half of the year, catapulting himself into the first round as a teenager. There was some talk that the Cavs might pick the hometown kid in the late lottery and that some other teams in that range were interested as well.

Three-level scorer with touch and potential

From a scout’s perspective, there’s a lot to like. He’s a scorer with tremendous touch at all three levels, a gift that can only be earned through oodles of repetition. He’s statistically excellent from all over the floor and made a ton of contested mid-range looks. He projects as a serious threat from beyond the arc, and he gets up and throws down at the rim. At 6’5” with a 6’10” wingspan, he has excellent size and length for a guard. ESPN's Jay Bilas identified him as one of the sleepers of the draft.

"He's a very talented player," he said. "I think we could look back at this draft and say, 'how was he taken at 20 and not in the top 10?'"

Spurs rookie Blake Wesley played with, and against, Branham in a workout in San Antonio before the draft. Wesley, who prides himself on that defense, spoke about the challenge of guarding him after the two became teammates.

“That was my first time seeing Malaki, like I’d seen him play, but in a workout it’s crazy,” he said. “He gets to his spot, can shoot it, get to the rim. “It was fun. We all competed. At the end of the day, that’s what I love.”

Branham’s scoring efficiency numbers are mouthwatering. 53% from two-point range, 42% from deep on nearly three attempts per game, and 83% at the charity stripe. He ranked in the 92nd percentile as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. 

It’s impressive for anyone, but especially impressive for a guy who created most of his own shots with a handle that is still very much a work in progress. He doesn’t have a deep bag of impressive moves, and he doesn’t create a ton of space for the pull-up jumpers that have been his bread and butter. It’s fair to wonder how he’s able to score so well given that limitation, and the answer is pretty clear after watching the film.

This is a player who doesn’t need to put defenders on skates. He just needs to get to his spots, which happen to be all over the floor. He makes simple reads, takes what the defense gives him, and isn’t afraid to fire with a hand in his face. It’s a balanced, methodical approach to putting the ball in the hoop.

“Just play the game,” he said in an interview at the draft combine. “Can’t be a robot.”

A legitimate triple threat off the catch, he makes good decisions and opens up driving lanes with jab steps and pump fakes. He protects the ball and feels comfortable pulling up anywhere inside the arc off of a few dribbles. He does an excellent job of using screens to get all the way to the rack and finish with power. If he just gets inside 10 feet, especially when he gets the defender on his hip, he has a high-arcing floater that finds its way home more often than not.

“I’ve been working on the floater a lot, so once I get to that spot, I know I can knock it down,” he said.

Post work is a bit of a lost art, especially for guards, but he was asked to do a lot of it in high school. The footwork, body control, and array of fakes are all so polished that it’s easy to forget his age. At Ohio State, he played more on the wing and developed wonderful chemistry with big man EJ Liddell. From spacing out of post entry passes to pick-and-roll nuance, he expanded his perimeter game.

As his freshman season went on, he grew more comfortable using his body to dislodge defenders. Nothing like a well-placed elbow to the midsection to create space for a jumper, and he knows right where the legal line is.

Branham likes to watch guys like Devin Booker and Khris Middleton, and those are some of the most natural comparisons to his scoring arsenal and size.

Though he shot most of his threes off the catch, he projects to be very efficient there at the NBA level. His shot prep and footwork are controlled and balanced, and making the most of him as a floor spacer will likely be key to his offensive production.

The first time he realized he could make it as a basketball player was his first dunk in eighth grade. 

“That was my first in-game dunk, but also my first poster too, so I felt like if I just keep working I can do something with this.”

Mid-season breakout

Branham reached double figures just once in his first ten games at Ohio State as he just tried to fit in. That run was capped by his worst game as a college player.

“We played Wisconsin at home, and I had 0 points and four turnovers. I texted Coach Holtman after the game and I told him thank you for playing me through those mistakes. I was just frustrated with myself, and I looked at myself in the mirror and basically was like, We gotta get to work.”

His next game was nearly a month later due to COVID, and he must have spent that time in the lab, because he torched Nebraska for 35. 

He set a career high with 14 points about midway through the first half. It was a barrage of catch-and-shoot threes. Then he ran pick-and-roll, snaked behind the big man and got a secondary screen for an easy dunk. He drained his fifth triple in seven tries, then almost caught an oop pass off a smart back cut. He snaked another pick-and-roll, got another highway screen, and got to the cup for a tough layup.

He jabbed, dribbled around a screen and swished a jumper from the top of the key. Somehow the Huskers left him open from the corner, and again he swished it. He worked his way to the middle of the paint in pick-and-roll, bumped the defender off with his shoulder and floated one in off the window. He caught at the arc, drove left, collapsed the defense and found a shooter. Another drive off the catch resulted in a pair of free throws. Another snaked pick-and-roll, another pair of free throws.

Down late, he curled around a screen and confidently swished from the elbow. In overtime he caught at the arc, took two quick dribbles to his left into the paint, and hit a huge jumper to put the Buckeyes up six.

After the 35-point explosion against Nebraska, he found his groove. He was full of confidence in himself and from his coaches and teammates, and he was out to prove that it wasn’t a one-time thing.

“After that the Nebraska game came, and I didn’t want that game to just be a fluke, like, ‘Oh, he was hot that game.’ Throughout the whole season, I just kept working and kept that in the back of my head, that I don’t want this game to be a fluke. I just wanted to be consistent throughout the year, and I feel like I did that.”

He averaged 17 points per game from Nebraska to the end of the year, shooting 43% from deep and playing heavy minutes for Ohio State.

“Mentally, I was just being more in attack mode, picking my spots, and also just helping the team out if they needed me to score in that game,” he said. “Physically I was just getting in the weight room a lot, just knowing how to pick my spots on the floor. I feel like that’s how my game was on the rise in the second half of the season.”

Tightening the handle... and the screws

Like any teenager, there’s a lot to work on. The good news is that most of the improvement areas seem like things he should be able to add to his game. He knows what those things are, too.

“Having a tighter handle,” he said on draft night when asked about what he’s trying to improve on. “I’m gonna be on the wing a lot, so me just having a tighter handle, being strong with the ball. And on the defensive side, just making it tough on guys. You’re gonna be playing against the best players in the world, so just making it tough on guys.”

Tightening his handle and expanding his bag a bit is the next evolution as an on-ball scorer. If he can get more comfortable and shifty with the rock in his hands, it would be a pretty complete package. 

Off the ball, he needs to master positioning and moving around off screens to fully maximize his ability as a shooter. If he can develop that understanding of where he needs to be, a lot of easy points will find him there.

He has the frame to be a multi-positional defender, but his defensive impact is mostly theoretical at this point. He left a lot to be desired on that end in college. He didn’t often guard the other team’s best player, struggled to navigate screens, and overall didn’t use those long arms and good instincts the way that you’d hope for. Part of that may have been the load he carried on offense for the Buckeyes, and in the NBA there will be an expectation of a more balanced role. 

Defense is a skill that can be taught and learned like any other, and if you’re a development staff, you want to be teaching it to a guy with the physical tools to be great. 

Dejounte Murray wasn’t known as a staunch defender coming out of Washington, but he was built like he could be one day. It didn’t take long at all for him to become the youngest All-Defense selection ever at the time, and that was because he committed, focused, and worked on that end. On draft night, Branham spoke about how he admired Dejounte's work ethic.

Branham seems to thoroughly enjoy putting the work in. On draft night, an Ohio State staffer told me that he’d never seen a guy who put in more time in the gym working on his craft by himself. When he won Big 10 Rookie of the Year, he was back in the facility the next morning. Early.

At his introductory press conference in San Antonio, he was asked about those 6 a.m. workouts.

“Not to correct you, but it was 5 a.m.,” he said with a laugh.

The work ethic has been a part of him since about sixth grade. That work got him to draft night in Brooklyn with his family.

“I’ve got a small circle: My mom, my little brother, my little sister, my uncle, my auntie, and my grandma, that’s it. And my trainer, I’ve been working out with him for 7+ years, so he became family as well,” he said. “The stuff they instilled in me, being humble, waiting your turn, just being on your own path, I feel like that’s made me who I am today.”

His path has led him to the NBA. Not the hometown Cavs, but the San Antonio Spurs. Plenty of Ohioans hoped he would stay close to home, but his uncle Lawrence must have been quite happy. Asked if anyone remembered the last Spurs championship (the rookies were 11 at the time), Branham raised his hand and smiled.

“My uncle was a really really big Spurs fan, he still is now. I remember watching him scream at the TV. He loves Tim Duncan, that’s his favorite player,” he said.

That may be sacrilegious in the Land of LeBron, but nobody in San Antonio will mind.

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