PICKERINGTON – Malaki Branham remembers the game that changed everything well. Heck, it happened just a couple weeks ago.
Playing at the Bill Hensley Memorial Run ‘N Slam in Fort Wayne, Indiana on May 5, Branham led NEO Tru Game to an 87-79 win against Mac Irvin Fire, which includes 2022 UCLA commit Amari Bailey and 2022 prospect Tre White, who already has offers from Kansas, Texas Tech and LSU.
“I just blew up,” Branham told Eleven Warriors on Saturday. “I was just scoring, getting blocks, rebounds, doing everything.”
Soon after the performance, which followed impressive play at Session I of the Nike EYBL in Atlanta in front of Ohio State coaches, the 6-foot-4, 198-pound combo guard became the top-ranked 2021 prospect in Ohio, per 247Sports, surpassing Meechie Johnson and Kalen Etzler. Branham rose all the way to No. 41 overall and become the sixth-rated combo guard in his class.
Four days after the victory against Mac Irvin Fire, he drove to Columbus with his family for his first-ever visit to Ohio State as a recruit. The rising junior from St Vincent-St. Mary High School had played at the Schottenstein Center during the high school state basketball tournament, but he had never checked out the campus and program from the perspective of a prospect.
Branham was taken for a trip around campus, then he checked out the locker rooms. Finally, he had a chance to sit down and talk with Chris Holtmann, who had a surprise for him.
“He took me into his office,” Branham said. “And then he let me see a couple videos of Ohio State and how they've been doing and just talked about the facts of the school. And then after that, he said, 'I would like to offer you.'”
Branham, who said he had no idea the offer was coming, called it a “surreal moment.”
“I was just smiling,” he said. “I was so happy. I was happy for my family.”
2021 combo-Guard Malaki Branham (NEO Tru Game) displayed a versatile skillset @ Spiece Run N Slam. Good positional size @ 65, fluid athlete covers a ton of ground w/long strides, excellent finisher, solid playmaker, very good on ball defender. High upside for sure @MalakiBranham pic.twitter.com/ruIzjdbRdf— Endless Motor Sports (@endless_motor) May 10, 2019
Ohio State could have waited to offer Branham, but it didn’t. Instead, it became the first high-major program to extend a scholarship offer to him. Duquesne and Akron have also offered Branham, and Ohio University’s former coaching staff gave him an offer. Miami (Ohio) has also been in contact.
As of Saturday, he hadn’t heard from any other high-major programs, though that will change soon. His team already advanced to Nike’s Peach Jam event in July that will be filled with college coaches, and he received an invite to participate in the 2019 Nike Elite 100.
Unlike Etzler, who was offered on the same day as Branham and committed on the spot, Branham doesn’t have any imminent plans to end his recruitment and become a Buckeye.
“I'm just going to keep my recruitment open,” Branham said. “We'll see in the future if that happens, then that happens. I'm just trying to keep playing basketball.”
Branham is not only an attractive prospect to Ohio State due to his skill, but because he grew up on the north side of Columbus.
He spent the first 14 years of his life in the city that houses the Buckeyes, eventually becoming a star middle schooler before moving to Akron to attend St. Vincent-St. Mary. He said he cheered for Ohio State “a little bit” growing up, mentioning he “still will cheer for them.”
Early in Branham’s recruitment, the Buckeyes have centered their pitch on him playing basketball for the state’s university, the one he grew up down the road from.
“It was just because you know I'm from Columbus, you know, hometown,” Branham said. “They think that I could be a part of something big because they did pretty good this year. And they said if I come, it's going to be even bigger.”
Branham, who has a 6-foot-10 wingspan, said Ohio State views him as a combo guard who can play on the wing.
The long-limbed gifted athlete averaged roughly 12 points and six rebounds as a sophomore during the 2018-19 season. He described himself as “versatile.”
“I like playing on the wing, getting ball screens, getting my teammates open, sharing the ball,” Branham said. “If I need to get my buckets, I get my buckets.”
He said his steepest improvements in the past year have been his shooting and aggressiveness.
Ohio State assistant coach Ryan Pedon has kept in contact with Branham's uncle, and Branham has talked mostly with Holtmann.
“He looks like a good coach,” Branham said. “He's going to get up in you. But he looks like he's very interested in me. That's what I'm kind of looking for. I'm looking for a coach that's very interested in me and see me developing in their program.”
Already with one commitment from Etzler, the Buckeyes are making a case for a multi-Ohioan 2021 class by offering Branham and Johnson.
New Prospect To Watch
Ohio State has pursued a number of big men for its 2020 class, and another name popped up this week: Four-star power forward P.J. Hall.
In an interview with 247Sports, Hall said the Buckeyes have increased their pursuit of him recently.
“Right now, coach (Ryan) Pedon is recruiting me because coach (Mike) Schrage left for the Elon job,” Hall told 247Sports. “It is a new school that has come in contact, and they said they would be picking it up with me.”
PJ Hall is a talented prospect with plenty of upside.— Shun Williams (@OntheRadarHoops) May 18, 2019
Offensively, he can make shots from multiple levels and score around the basket
:@teamtruth07 @UpwardStarsSE @pjhall020 @DormanHoops @_CoachSav @MylesTateeee pic.twitter.com/ATpZ5B5tVq
The Buckeyes have ground to make up since they're jumping into his recruitment relatively late, but Hall appears in no rush to make a decision. He told 247Sports that he plans to visit as many schools as possible before making a decision, and he hasn't set up any visits yet.
Hall, who stands 6-foot-9 and weighs 220 pounds, is the No. 65 overall prospect and the ninth-ranked power forward in his class. The Roebuck, South Carolina, native is the top-ranked recruit in his home state.
Zeb Jackson sticking with Michigan
John Beilein's decision to leave Michigan for the Cleveland Cavaliers cast uncertainty over whether Maumee Valley four-star guard and months-long Wolverines commit Zeb Jackson would end up in Ann Arbor. Speculation even arose about whether the Buckeyes might once again start recruiting the 2020 prospect since they were an option before he committed in October.
However, Jackson's father Zeb Sr. told The Athletic's Brendan Quinn that Jackson intends to remain a future Wolverine, as long as newly hired head coach Juwan Howard remains "as excited" in him as Beilein was.
Zeb Jackson Sr., the father of top-100 2020 guard Zeb Jackson, tells@TheAthleticDET that his son is holding firm in his commitment to U-M, in light of the Howard reports. "As long as Coach Howard and his staff remain as excited about Zeb as Coach Beilein and his staff," he said.— Brendan Quinn (@BFQuinn) May 22, 2019
Jackson, even if he had reopened his recruitment, wouldn't have truly fit a need for Ohio State, which is recruiting big men and wings for its 2020 class.
He's the No. 59 overall prospect and the 14th-ranked shooting guard.
Ongoing Dead Period, Then Visits
College basketball recruiting has been in a so-called dead period since last Thursday, meaning coaches have not been allowed to meet with recruits in person, and recruits have been unable to visit programs.
Once the dead period ends after Friday, recruiting will pick up once again. Dain Dainja visited Columbus last Monday, and other prospects will likely take visits shortly.
The Adidas Gold Gauntlet qualifiers will be held this weekend in Dallas, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Atlanta. Numerous Buckeyes targets will be playing, including Zach Loveday, Dawson Garcia, Keon Johnson and Donovan "Puff" Johnson.
The next evaluation period, which allows college coaches to attend events that feature high school prospects, will be held on June 13-14. It correlates with the NBPA Top 100 camp in Charlottesville, Virginia, which will include a host of Ohio State targets.