Malaki Branham's Passing | The Friday Screener
Malaki Branham profiles as a deadly shooter and promising scorer, but his passing ability separates him from most wings in the 2022 NBA Draft class.
Malaki Branham slowly climbed draft boards in the early season through his high-level shooting and two-way potential. Around the mid-season mark, though, Branham went from a potential second-rounder to a potential lottery pick as his on-ball scoring exploded. The lethal off-ball shooting translated seamlessly to his pull-up shooting. The Ohio State Buckeye wing is a first-round talent based on his shooting alone, but he separates himself from most of the wings in this class because of his passing.
A common theme with young players is their inability to play with pace. I don’t mean that some are too slow, but instead that the game is too fast for them. They constantly let their opponents dictate the pace, and they rush their decisions. Branham plays at his own pace. He controls the game and rarely gets taken out of his game. We see this in how he attacks the rim and mid-range, but it also shines in his passing. He consistently does the simple things like making the extra pass, and he reads defenses at an impressively high level.
As we go through Branham’s passing, I want to elevate from the simplistic (yet crucial) to the well-god-damn passes. One of the biggest pet peeves of every ancient announcer and myself (not sure what this says about them or me…) is a perimeter player’s inability to execute an entry pass. Far too often, we see players dawdle, hesitate, and waste essential seconds on the perimeter trying to figure out how to throw an entry pass. It’s infuriating, except with Branham.
I promise these get sexier than the run-of-the-mill entry passes, but it’s an essential building block with similar characteristics in clips we’ll soon see. Here, Branham doesn’t hesitate with his entry pass. As the ball swings to him, he sees that E.J. Liddell’s defender is heavily leaning on Liddell’s right shoulder. Even though Liddell is asking for the ball to his right, Branham properly reads the defender’s leverage. Branham uses his length to quickly pass over his defender, against Liddell’s defender’s leverage, to set up Liddell for the score.
A common theme with Branham’s passing is his decisiveness. It is a crucial trait that ensures the briefest of windows don’t close. Branham, like many wings, easily uses his length to pass over his defender on entry passes. What many young players struggle with, though, is changing angles when the opponent takes away the over-the-top pass.
Here, Branham relocates to the corner as the ball swings to his side of the floor. As Branham receives the ball, he knows that Liddell will have a strong baseline seal as his defender has to rotate from the middle of the floor. Branham quickly swings the ball through, steps towards the baseline, and uses his length to change the angle of the entry pass. By doing so, Branham makes it impossible for Liddell’s defender to steal it while leading Liddell to the rim for the score.
Branham’s length and intuition on changing angles also make him adept at finding cutters. After making the skip pass to Branham, Liddell sees his defender has switched off, so he cuts to the rim. Branham steps through and delivers a bounce pass from an angle his defender can’t intercept to set up the layup.
Branham isn’t just a standstill passer, though. He does a tremendous job of unbalancing the defense with his scoring gravity and rim pressure. While his standstill passing variations show his strong foundation as a passer, his movement passing displays his impressive feel for the game and ability to manipulate a defense.
Here, Liddell’s skip pass forces the defense to scramble. They rotate well, but Branham’s shooting prowess forces the long closeout. Without hesitation, Branham attacks the closeout and the middle of the floor. He could have simply made the extra pass, but this decision gives him additional options and puts pressure on the defense to decide on stopping his drive or staying with shooters. As Branham attacks the lane, the help defender sinks down to cut off the drive. Branham immediately delivers a precise kick out for the wide-open three.
To add context, Branham ranked in the 89th percentile this season at shooting off the catch, per Synergy. The defender was correct with his long closeout, but Branham’s ability to attack closeouts to score and create is a deadly combination for defenders to try to handle. Not only is Branham a lethal outside shooter, but he also ranked in the 58th percentile in long twos (17 feet to the three-point line) and in the 87th percentile on short twos (inside 17 feet).
Here, we see how Branham combines his quick decision-making with his gravity. After receiving the ball in the post, Branham’s teammate cuts through the lane, which triggers the double team by the defense. Many young players would panic or at least dribble out to the perimeter, but Branham reads it immediately. Before the second defender can really pressure him, Branham uses a small hop and his length to pass over the defense and set up his teammate for the easy layup.
This time, Branham shows off his ability to play with pace, as we talked about earlier. After running off a series of screens, Branham attacks downhill. The defender does a great job of cutting off his drive. Instead of killing his dribble or tossing up an awful shot in traffic, Branham shows his composure, keeps his dribble, and circles back to the middle of the floor. This move causes the help defenders to miscommunicate and scramble to the perimeter shooter. Branham reads it perfectly and delivers a no-look pass to Liddell for the dunk.
Branham isn’t the traditional isolation scorer who creates acres of space on step-backs; however, he is incredibly effective at getting downhill and pulling up, which is what generates his immense scoring gravity. It typically takes more experience for young players to harness their scoring gravity as a tool to manipulate defenses, but Branham is already pretty comfortable with it.
We already saw him use attacking closeouts and keeping his dribble alive to counter defensive rotations, but here, we see Branham use his gravity in a more traditional isolation scenario. Branham crosses over his defender and attacks the middle of the floor, where he is met by a help defender. Branham’s drive has been stalled, but since his head is up, he finds his teammate, who has been ignored on the baseline cut.
The final evolution for most perimeter players is pick-and-roll. Those who can’t run it get relegated to a more off-ball role that consists of shooting off the catch, attacking closeouts, and cutting, while those who can run it see their impact, profiles, and role skyrocket.
This season, Branham’s most-used play type was the pick-and-roll (27.2% of his possessions), where he scored 1.044 points per possession (PPP), which ranked in the 94th percentile. Those are outrageous numbers. Not only was he an elite scorer out of the pick-and-roll, but his passes also ranked in the 84th percentile as they generated 1.157 PPP. All the building blocks of Branham’s passing that we’ve covered so far shine through in glorious fashion when he runs the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t flood the timeline with jaw-dropping highlights, but he combines his processing speed, scoring gravity, composure, passing accuracy, and use of angles to carve defenses apart.
Ohio State didn’t have a vertical spacing rim runner this season, but Branham still generated 1.088 PPP (64th percentile) when he passed to the roller. Here, Branham receives the inbound pass to set up the empty-side pick-and-roll. Branham takes one dribble towards the screen as his teammate slips to the rim. The defense hard hedges Branham, who reads it immediately. Branham uses a similar subtle hop that we saw earlier to change the angle of his pass and quickly set up his teammate for the dunk.
This time, Ohio State runs a similar empty-side pick-and-roll, but Branham dribbles towards the baseline to initiate the switch on the screen. Once the switch happens, Branham kills his dribble and steps back toward his teammate, who is pivoting out of the screen while sealing the defender. This step by Branham moves him away from his defender and creates a lane for him to thread with a perfect bounce pass to set up his teammate’s dunk.
Branham’s exquisite execution of the two-man game isn’t reserved for just attacking the rim. He also finds shooters effortlessly, whether it is on kick-outs to spot-up shooters or in pick-and-pop situations. This season, Branham generated 1.25 PPP (92nd percentile) when he passed out of the pick-and-roll to spot-up shooters.
Branham showed us earlier his ability to drag defenders and create extra space for his teammates, and that skill translates to his pick-and-roll creation as well. Here, Ohio State runs yet another empty-side pick-and-roll, and Liddell slips the screen. Branham attacks the lane and forces three defenders to collapse on him. Without hesitation, Branham sees the miscommunication and kicks it to Liddell for the open three.
This time, Branham runs a double drag before reusing the screen, which causes Branham’s defender to get dislodged momentarily. Branham’s defender isn’t taken out of the play by the screen, but he is affected enough that Branham could get the corner, which forces Kofi Cockburn to leave his man and drop to the rim. It takes Branham one dribble off the screen to recognize what is happening as he is dragging both defenders with him. Branham kills his dribble, pivots, and passes out for the wide-open three.
Malaki Branham’s lethal shooting and explosive scoring in the second half of the season will rightfully get most of the attention. However, his passing ability sets him apart from most wings in the 2022 NBA Draft class. Branham’s offensive versatility makes him a fit in any NBA offense. He doesn’t panic, plays at his own speed, and has the processing speed of an NBA veteran. Putting a ceiling on Branham’s offense feels foolish as his combination of passing, scoring, and awareness is remarkable.