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And the Thunder Select: Malaki Branham

Shades of: Khris Middleton, Devin Booker lite, longer Tyler Herro

One of my favorite players in this draft class, Malaki Branham, surprised a lot of people this season by unexpectedly becoming a potential one-and-done prospect. He burst onto the scene with an early 35-point performance at Nebraska and didn’t look back, earning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award during his lone season at OSU. Now, I am an Ohio State fan trying to put my personal biases aside, but I think the consensus is much too low on him. Branham should be discussed as a borderline top-10 pick in the upcoming draft. He will be one of the youngest players of this class, having just turned 19 by the time he’s selected. Branham is one of four high-major freshmen, per Bart Torvik, since 2008 to accumulate:

The other freshmen include Lauri Markannen, Ben McLemore, and Ben Mathurin. Markannen and McLemore were both picked 7th overall and Mathurin is well on his way to being a lottery pick this summer. This type of efficient shotmaking is almost unprecedented for a freshman, especially on a team that outside of lacked anyone who could get their own basket other than teammate EJ Liddell.

Branham began his freshman season quietly, putting up pedestrian numbers as he took a back seat to Liddell and other more experienced players on Ohio State, but once he turned in his aforementioned breakout game against Nebraska, he just kept rolling. He put up 20 points at Purdue, 22 versus Iowa, 27 versus Indiana, 31 at Illinois, 22 versus Michigan State, and 23 against Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. His offense and shotmaking are his main calling card, but Branham possesses the length to be a good or neutral defender in the NBA. Speaking of his offense, let’s take a deeper look into that aspect of Branham’s game.

Shotmaking

Branham didn’t come into college as a renowned shooter, but he had an excellent shooting season from everywhere on the floor for the Buckeyes. He shot 72.2 percent at the rim despite being assisted on only 21.1 percent of those makes. In addition to that, he shot a very solid 41.3 percent on non-rim twos, being assisted on only 18.2 percent of those makes. Branham was tasked with getting his own shot a lot of the time for Ohio States’ offense, and he delivered.

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Branham is very good at getting to his spots on the floor. He can get a jumper off over almost anyone thanks to his 6’11 wingspan and high release point, and he constantly did just that throughout the season. He plays at a methodical pace, and is almost always finding a good shot for himself.

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One thing that makes him and Khris Middleton (a popular comparison) similar is that neither get a lot of “easy” shots. Branham can and has shown the ability to create separation from his defender, but that isn’t his forte. As I stated earlier, he excels at getting to his spot on the floor and hitting a jumper over his man.

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These plays just look effortless to him. Branham could get this shot off over almost anybody in college basketball who was defending him. The balance in the air is impressive and he always pulls out little tricks like that slight push-off to create space for himself. He took the Villanova game over on the offensive end, the best player on the floor as a true freshman on the biggest college stage.

Ohio State routinely ran him off screens to allow him to get downhill quicker and get open for jumpers, but Branham has shown the ability to blow by defenders at a standstill:

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He’s really good at finishing through contact and around defenders. On the season he only had a 29.9 FTr, which isn’t excellent by any means. But that’s still very serviceable considering the fact he shot 72.2 percent at the rim, with a low number of those being assisted. Additionally, he did see a free throw increase after his breakout game, putting up 4.1 per game the rest of the way.

So many of Branham’s shots are created and made out of isolation, making his efficiency all the more impressive for a wing his age. He routinely takes good angles to the basket and is great at using seals in the paint to finish at the rim. Sometimes he looks like an edge rusher bending around the corner and he’s quite good at using this leverage to turn the corner for some surprising dunks.

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Branham shot 41.1 percent from three this past season, and a blistering 46 percent in Big Ten Conference play. While a lot of these attempts were assisted (91.9 percent) he shot 45% on catch-and-shoot and looks the part of an awesome NBA shooter. We didn’t see much movement shooting from Branham at Ohio State, but the team didn’t give him a lot of opportunities to do so. There is no reason to think he is not capable of adding that element at the next level. The volume is the only concern here, as Branham only attempted 89 three-pointers in total during the season. If the shooting isn’t as real as I think it is, then there is a real problem at hand. But with the C&S numbers, free throw percentage, and further development trajectory, I think it’s more likely people are underrating his shooting ability.

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Speaking of off-ball movement, Branham does a lot of that. He’s a pretty good cutter and is always running around screens and finding open spots on the floor. This versatility is what makes him so intriguing, and why I don’t really understand the Caris Levert comparisons. Branham doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective like Levert does.

Playmaking

The passing and playmaking for others is the real ceiling-breaking skill for Branham. On the surface, he only averaged two assists per game, a pretty unappealing number. But Ohio State’s leading assist man averaged just 2.9 on the season, and OSU desperately needed Branham’s scoring. Their three-point percentage as a team was buoyed by Branham despite their lack of good spacing. I touched on this earlier, but Ohio State was a true stars and scrubs roster. Branham and Liddell are first-round picks, Kyle Young was a good college player but no NBA prospect, and no one else is likely to sniff playing professionally. Branham showcased real playmaking flashes down the stretch as the offense fell into his hands more (sans some lazy passes against Villanova).

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He ranked in the 94th percentile this season as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Once again, he’s great at getting to his spots in the PNR, occasionally putting his defender on his hip and showcasing his touch around the rim. The flashes of quick decision-making on the perimeter popped more as he had the ball in his hands. He drew a lot of attention toward the end of the season and was making some pretty nice kick-out passes for open buckets. It’s unlikely that he will ever be an offensive engine, but his passing is good enough and still developing.

Defending

The defense for Branham is… okay. He’s got great length but is a little thin as of right now, and definitely has some focus issues. He has had some really nice point-of-attack flashes on that end of the floor when contesting jumpers–holding his own against Johnny Davis and others–but has definitely been a negative in some games as well. His 1.5 STL% and 1.0 BLK% are pretty average numbers across the board.

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Ohio State’s defense ranked 111th nationally per KenPom, and Branham had something to do with it. He struggled to defend in the PNR at points during the year and I do wonder if some of it was due to fatigue and saving energy; once Branham turned the corner during the season, he and Liddell were a two-man show on offense. I can’t stress enough how much Liddell and Branham had to carry OSU on offense, and I wonder if a scaled-back role will solidify his defense. But as of right now, it’s not anything to write home about.

Lock it In?

I’m very high on Branham, and I believe he should be considered pretty early in this draft. The combination of age, efficiency, size, and standout performances against legit competition makes him too hard to pass up for me. The playmaking really came alive at the end of the year as well, and I would imagine NBA teams would love his translatable game. I understand he has issues, namely inconsistent space creation and defensive inefficiencies. But the shotmaking and overall offensive acumen for the young guard really shine. If Branham weren’t an afterthought in the one-and-done conversation at the beginning of the season, where would be ranked? After his 10 game adjusting period before the breakout at Nebraska, he averaged 17 points on 53/43/82 splits (!) in 22 games. There is a definite anchoring bias that lingers throughout the season, and I’m hoping Branham starts rising up draft boards.

Maybe I will be wrong, but I prefer Branham to someone like Johnny Davis–routinely getting mocked in the top 10 without hesitation. If The Thunder end up unlucky in the lottery, I wouldn’t be opposed to Oklahoma City taking Branham in a possible trade down or even at the spot they end up at with their own pick. If he’s still there where the Clippers pick conveys (likely in the 12- to 15-range), that’s a home run in my eyes.

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