Finding the right fit for your college basketball program isn't just about what happens on the court, but off it as well. Ohio State added a key piece. How will that commitment impact the Buckeyes?
The marathon is over.
Ever since blowing up last spring when he went from an unranked recruit to a near-five-star prospect, leading to an Ohio State offer in May 2019, Malaki Branham has topped Chris Holtmann's wish list for the 2021 class. Holtmann and his coaching staff, who were aware of him well before the scholarship offer, went after him as hard as they could. They played host to him on a multitude of visits and took trips to see him and his St. Vincent-St. Mary team over the past year.
On Wednesday, the work paid off.
Branham announced his commitment to play basketball for the Buckeyes, teaming up with long-time commits Meechie Johnson and Kalen Etzler to populate one of the nation's top-rated classes thus far. All three Ohioans are top-100 overall prospects in the cycle, making Ohio State the country's only team with a trio of four-star commits.
On The Court
Ohio State received a commitment from a standout point guard when Johnson pledged to attend what he called his "dream school." Yet, the program was never done in the backcourt. Its goal was always to team him up with a bigger guard who can both play on and off the ball.
In Branham, the Buckeyes got that guy.
The 6-foot-4, 175-pounder is a prolific scorer who averaged 21 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary, earning first-team all-state honors. Along with Johnson, he'll be one of the top candidates for Ohio's Mr. Basketball as a senior.
Branham has worked to stretch out his offensive game since his outside jumper has needed some work. Most of his points come within the arc. However, it's improving and provided it eventually comes, it'll make him a deadly three-level scorer.
"It was good but it wasn't consistent," Branham told Eleven Warriors over the weekend. "Right now where I'm at, it's pretty consistent. I know my jump shot. I just hope down the line I just get better and get more consistent with my jump shot."
The additions of Eugene Brown III (2020), Johnson (2021) and Bowen Hardman (2022), all of whom are strong 3-point shooters, will complement what he can do best offensively.
Off the bounce both as a penetrator and a mid-range shooter, Branham's already a weapon. In each aspect of his game, he's polished beyond what most would expect from a player of his age.
Branham – blessed with a 6-foot-10 wingspan – has an uncanny ability to get to the basket, and he showcases outstanding balance, body control and use of contact around the rim. He's both able to drive and draw fouls without fear despite a relatively slim frame. When Branham puts the ball on the deck, he's also able to create space for a quality mid-range shot that he likes to use. A quality dribble pull-up from 2-point range is something Ohio State has missed in recent years that he'll bring to Columbus.
Also notable? Branham's as competitive as players come, is unafraid to talk to opponents as he's going at them and has a tendency to heat up in a hurry. Both he and Johnson can thrive playing with emotion, which will make them an intriguing duo.
Though not an otherworldly athlete, Branham's a good athlete with enough bounce. Importantly, he has a moldable frame with long arms and an ability to put on weight over the next few years. His 6-foot-10 wingspan will allow him to serve as a combo guard while also getting minutes on the wing depending on the lineup.
“I like playing on the wing, getting ball screens, getting my teammates open, sharing the ball,” Branham said last year. “If I need to get my buckets, I get my buckets.”
Branham naturally will need to develop defensively once he gets to the next level, which takes time for all newcomers, but he should be an immediate-impact offensive player. He hasn't played with Johnson – at least, not any time recently – but they're a tantalizing pairing of scoring threats in the backcourt.
In The Class
Already, the Buckeyes held a commitment from Johnson, whose ranking should shoot up over the next year before enrolling. Still, a second guard in the 2021 class was a major need.
They'll lose both CJ Walker and Abel Porter to graduation following the upcoming season. Then in Branham's freshman season, Duane Washington Jr. and Jimmy Sotos will be seniors. Plus, Washington could even look to go pro after the 2020-21 season if he breaks out. The other guards on the roster – Musa Jallow and Brown – are more so wings who won't be counted on to dribble the ball.
By landing Branham to go along with Johnson, Ohio State has its guards of the future who'll compete to start as freshmen before having wide-open opportunities as sophomores.
Including Branham – who fills the need in the backcourt as a shooting guard who can handle the ball – here's a look at the scholarship chart (with the caveat that Jimmy Sotos will redshirt this season and be a redshirt senior for the 2021-22 season):
|PF||KYLE YOUNG||SETH TOWNS (RS)||E.J. LIDDELL||ZED KEY||KALEN ETZLER (2021)|
JUSTICE SUEING (RS)
MUSA JALLOW (RS)
|SG||–||DUANE WASHINGTON JR.||
MALAKI BRANHAM (2021)
BOWEN HARDMAN (2022)
CJ WALKER (RS)
ABEL PORTER (RS)
|–||–||–||MEECHIE JOHNSON (2021)|
With Branham – the third commitment in the 2021 class – now in the fold, Ohio State could call it quits on the cycle. The Buckeyes only have three seniors set to graduate following the 2020-21 season. Kyle Young, Walker and Porter will move on afterward.
But it hasn't been a secret that Ohio State has been looking at a four-person class for a while. The staff had been chasing a slew of big men, including Efton Reid, Franck Kepnang and Micawber Etienne, along with wings/forwards such as Mason Miller, Deebo Coleman and Lucas Taylor.
With Branham committed, all of the Buckeyes' focus in finishing out the 2021 cycle will be on adding a big man. They're done in the backcourt.
Reid immediately becomes the No. 1 2021 post target. He's a five-star center from Virginia who recently transferred to Florida's IMG Academy to play on the post-grad team. However, there's still a chance he reclassifies to 2020. If that happens, the Buckeyes would be out of the running since they're at the 13-scholarship limit. But provided he remains in the 2021 class, he's the primary focus going forward, representing the final piece of what would be a just-about-perfect recruiting class.
A stated goal of Holtmann has been to get old and stay old. He has cited programs such as Tony Bennett's Virginia and Jay Wright's Villanova as those who have done just that.
To get there, though, you have to recruit at a certain level – even if you aren't always landing the five-star prospects who are destined to be one-and-dones. The easiest way to get the that point on the trail is to lock down both the region and the state.
Holtmann has evidently made that his goal.
Branham, a Columbus native who lives in Akron while playing for St. Vincent-St. Mary, is the third Ohioan to join the Buckeyes' 2021 class. All four players committed to them in future classes, including Hardman in 2022, are in-state recruits. They have Ohio in their blood.
No, Holtmann isn't just going after these guys because they're within the state's borders. He views them as potential impact college players whose attitudes and desires fit within the program he's trying to build. But going after the best Ohioans is a clear priority that he referenced the moment he got hired, and it's working.
The Buckeyes got Hardman from the Cincinnati area, Etzler from northwest Ohio, Johnson from Cleveland and now have Branham from Columbus via Akron. With Dayton's Shawn Phillips, Gahanna's Sean Jones, Cincinnati's Paul McMillan, Richmond Heights' Josiah Harris and others on the board, they're far from done in Ohio.
Branham is just the latest to pick Ohio State from within the border – and he also might also be the best of them all.