Expecting Malaki Branham to produce another 35-point performance after his coming-out party at Nebraska on Jan. 2 was probably too much to ask.
If the freshman guard keeps putting on shows like he did on Monday night, though, we might have to completely reconsider that premise altogether, as Branham continues to redefine what’s possible in his first year of college basketball.
Perhaps even Branham’s breakout showcase in Lincoln wasn’t quite as impressive as what he displayed in Monday’s overtime win against Indiana. The Ohio native poured in a game-high 27 points on 9-for-13 shooting, pulled down five boards, dished out three assists and either scored or assisted on each of the Buckeyes’ final six points to tie things up at the end of regulation. When Ohio State needed a score with the game on the line, it was Branham who had the ball in his hands, and he facilitated the game-tying bucket that sent things into the extra period.
“We’ve evolved into (relying on Branham late) a lot here in the last month,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the Buckeyes’ 80-69 win. “Now we weren’t that way at the beginning of the year because his game wasn’t at that level at the beginning of the year. Still a little too fast for him.”
But the game has slowed down for Branham.
The freshman had already scored 13 points in the second half alone when he looked to make another play on Ohio State’s final possession of regulation, and even though he drew the attention of four Hoosier defenders, no one would’ve been upset if Branham attempted a tough, contested shot to try and tie the game. Instead, Branham made the smarter play, finding a wide open E.J. Liddell, whose man had left him to help defend out further from the basket.
“Really I just kind of looked for the right play, I’m not a guy that really forces up a bad shot,” Branham said. “I just kind of read the game. Like E.J. said, it’s kind of slowing down for me so I kind of took my time and E.J. was wide open so I just threw it to him and he did the rest.”
The play was reminiscent of Ohio State’s first game of the season, when Branham dished to Zed Key on the final Buckeye possession of the contest for a game-winning dunk in a closer-than-expected matchup with Akron. While it was eye-opening for Branham to make a play like that in his first-ever college game, it didn’t guarantee the success he’d have to this point.
“We put him in some of those spots early, but I don’t think you fully know that until the lights are on,” Holtmann said.
It might have taken his 35-point outburst against Nebraska for Branham to truly get comfortable at the college level, and although he’s experienced occasional dips in production since then, the averages show Branham has reached a new plateau with just five games left in the regular season.
In the last 14 games, Branham is averaging 15.8 points per game, shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range. Branham has had 10 double-digit scoring games during that stretch and has topped the 20-point mark on five occasions. Even in a disappointing loss to Iowa on Saturday, Branham was a bright spot, pouring in 22 points on 69.2 percent shooting and pulling down eight rebounds.
Holtmann says the strides Branham has made over the past three months have been transformative for the emerging star.
“His maturity’s elevated. I’ve said that all along, he’s one of the most mature freshmen I’ve ever coached, just in terms of across the board,” Holtmann said. “Just really high maturity level. Some of that’s with his IQ and feel for the game, which has really grown in the last (few months). If you saw us in Florida (when Ohio State played in the Fort Myers Tip-Off), you would say, ‘He’s a completely different player.’ Those of you that were in Florida, you would say that right now. He is completely different.
“He’s worked at it and he’s taken coaching and he’s taken criticism and found a way to get better, and that’s maturity, right? That’s a sign of maturity, ‘I’m not blaming anybody else, I’m accepting accountability, I’m gonna find a way to get better, I’m gonna really work at it.’ That’s a sign of maturity.”
The only concern now for Holtmann is he might rely too heavily on a freshman whose body might wear down late in the season if he continues to play 30-plus minutes per night. Besides Ohio State’s non-conference blowout against IUPUI, a game in which Branham logged just 18 minutes, he has played at least 30 minutes in 13 of the Buckeyes’ past 14 games for an average of 32.8.
Holtmann referenced the “freshman wall” when discussing Branham last week, but said Monday it’s possible that no such barrier will impact his starting shooting guard.
“Listen, if there’s no wall, I’m good with that. Let’s not make up a wall if there is no wall,” Holtmann said. “I’m fine with there being no wall at any time, I just am aware of the amount of minutes I’m playing a young guy with young legs, and now we’ve asked him to do a lot more than we did early in the year.”
If you ask Branham, he just needs an ice bath after a 39-minute night at the office like he had Monday, and he’ll be good to go.
While Holtmann still sees plenty of areas of improvement for Branham moving forward, the thought of an altogether better player than the one that went off on Indiana is a scary idea for Big Ten opponents, especially if he continues taking things up a notch as the season winds to its end.
“He’s not gonna be this every night, it’s too much to expect from a kid,” Holtmann said. “But he’s been phenomenal.”