Sleeper Deep Dives: Malaki Branham
Malaki Branham might not have entered the season with the same level of hype as some others at the top of his high school class, but he has proven himself with a great first year at Ohio State.
Malaki Branham was in an interesting position when he started this season at Ohio State. As the 32nd-ranked recruit in his high school class per RSCI, Branham entered the season outside of the Top 30 of his high school class but also as the highest-ranked recruit on the Ohio State roster. As a Columbus-raised Ohio native who attended a school in Akron that you may have heard of called St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Branham had a bit of the hometown hero narrative behind him as well. On the court, however, the narrative for Branham was not guaranteed to be so simple. Despite his accolades heading into the season, he was by no means guaranteed a major role for Ohio State.
Malaki Branham started the season off slowly, and he faded into the background a bit behind the team’s star E.J. Liddell. As the season has gone on, however, Branham has slowly pushed his way into the spotlight. He is averaging 13.2 PPG on impressive 49/44/82 shooting splits, 3.6 RPG, and 1.9 APG in 29 MPG for the Buckeyes. He has started in every game for them since their first game of the season, and he has improved his production in conference play. He has really heated up as of late; Branham has scored double figures in each of his last eight games after failing to crack double digits in each of his first seven games.
While Branham might consider returning to Ohio State for the larger role that he seems likely to have as a sophomore, his recent breakout might also lead to Branham staying in the 2022 NBA Draft. He has some room to grow as a passer and space creator, but his shooting stroke and his ability to get to the free-throw line in bunches could be enough for him to be considered as a late first-round pick. So…let’s dive deep!
Offense: Spacing and Slashing
The place to begin with the Malaki Branham evaluation is his shooting touch, especially from beyond the arc. He can score at all three levels, and his handle is solid enough to get him to his spots in the midrange. After his quiet start to the season, Branham has turned into a reliable scoring threat and second scoring option for the Buckeyes. While he could stand to put up more than 2.7 3PA per game, Branham has knocked down his triples at a 43.6% rate this season. He could stand to boost his volume from beyond the mark, but his percentage from deep bodes well for his NBA future.
Branham will be doing most of his work at the NBA level as a spot-up threat, as he doesn’t have enough on-ball juice to be a primary initiator or scorer at this point in his development. However, he has shown growth throughout the season in terms of creating perimeter shots for himself. He is capable of generating looks for himself when he can take advantage of a screen to free himself up on the perimeter:
The offensive numbers across the board paint a positive picture of Malaki Branham’s contributions. He ranks in the 87th percentile offensively per Synergy Sports, and he is even better in halfcourt settings, where he ranks in the 89th percentile. Branham scores a ridiculous 1.118 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler as well, which ranks in the 97th percentile; while he isn’t a prospect who is likely to get a ton of on-ball reps at the NBA level, he can do damage when he does have the ball in his hands and he has either a straight line to the rim or an opening for a jump shot.
While three-point shooting will be the main selling point for Branham as an NBA prospect, he also has a fascinating relationship with the free-throw line that might prove to be telling, in time. Branham has averaged 3.0 FTA per game—just barely ahead of his three-point attempt rate. However, Branham’s free-throw numbers have been skewed by his smaller role to start the season; he had six free-throw attempts in total (knocking down all six of them) in his first ten games for the Buckeyes.
The last stretch of games for Branham, however, has painted an entirely different picture. Branham has gone to the charity stripe 46 times in his last eight games, including a 10-11 mark from the free-throw line in his 31-point outing against Illinois. The calling card for Branham might be his shooting stroke, but his ability to live at the free-throw line will certainly play a part in how much success he can have at the next level.
Defense: Frame and Future
While Malaki Branham’s stock is based on his offensive abilities, there are plenty of reasons to believe in him contributing on the defensive end of the floor sooner rather than later. His defense at this point is far from being terrible, and he will have some tools to lean on when it comes to defending at the NBA level.
The biggest concern for Branham defensively early on is also, thankfully, the easiest to correct. Branham is rather skinny for his 6’5” frame at 180 lbs., but his height and reported 6’10” wingspan will allow him to guard 1-3 once he puts on a few pounds in an NBA weight room. He’s already strong enough to outmuscle some smaller college players, and a bit more strength could do wonders for his defensive game.
The defensive box score numbers are sadly not much to write home about; Branham is averaging less than a steal and a block per game—combined. He grades out as merely “Average” defensively per Synergy Sports, and his mediocre athleticism will be easier to exploit at the NBA level. Still, he does read the floor well defensively; while he can get caught ball-watching at times, Branham can and will take advantage whenever his opponents get sloppy with the ball:
Malaki Branham rates out as average in terms of his overall defensive numbers, but he does do a good job of containing opposing pick-and-roll plays. Branham allows just 0.806 PPP to opposition ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll—good for the 64th percentile overall. He could stand to generate a few more turnovers per game, but his solidity in pick-and-roll defense should be enough for him to be passable on that end until he can bulk up enough to take full advantage of his frame.
Malaki Branham has only gotten better as the season has progressed, and he will have some more chances to prove himself before the end of the year. His first big chance will be in Ohio State’s Big Ten tournament game against Penn State; while Ohio State’s chances of making the Big Dance have taken hit after the team lost four of their last seven games, Branham will certainly get a chance to prove himself in the conference tournament at the very least.
If Branham decides to return to Ohio State, regardless of the team’s postseason play, he will head into his sophomore season as the focal point of Ohio State’s offense. He might have a chance to be the Jaden Ivey or Bennedict Mathurin of next year’s class and earn his way into lottery consideration on the basis of a strong second-year campaign.
Branham might decide to come back to school for another year; he may very well decide to give it a go for a year as the primary option, especially as an Ohio native. However, he has done enough in his first season alone to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and an All-Big Team Third Team nod as well. He has burst onto the scene after a slow start to the year, and will garner strong consideration for the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft. He might not have started the season as a clear one-and-done player, but Malaki Branham will end the season as a player with a decent chance of hearing Adam Silver call his name on Draft Night.