Up until some time midway through the 2021-22 season, Chris Holtmann probably never imagined he’d only have Malaki Branham for one year of college basketball. But once that year ended, the Buckeye coach actually encouraged the star freshman to take the next step.
The way Branham told it outside of Saturday’s Nike EYBL AAU tournament in Indianapolis, Holtmann instructed the Big Ten Freshman of the Year that testing the NBA draft process, rather than focusing all his efforts on retooling for a sophomore season in Columbus, was the only logical choice.
“Basically he was just like, ‘You definitely do need to test the waters,’” Branham said. “He wanted me to test the waters just to get the feedback from some teams and just seeing what I need to work on and what’s my weaknesses and things like that. He was definitely encouraging me to do the draft process.”
Branham, who announced on April 1 that he would maintain his collegiate eligibility while going through the draft process, still isn’t ready to say for sure he will not come back to school for the 2022-23 season. Branham told ESPN at the beginning of the month that he will stay in the draft if he believes he’ll be a first-round pick, but he reiterated Saturday that he needs to hear more from scouts before locking down a final call.
“I just gotta get some more feedback. I don’t really know what to expect,” Branham said. “The NBA draft, it can go anywhere, so just trying to see where I’m gonna stand at.”
Still, Branham’s draft grades at the end of the year were good enough to convince him that declaring for the draft was in his best interest. As things stand, Branham is widely projected to be a first-round selection when the draft takes place in late June.
The strongest argument against Branham turning pro is he could lock himself into a lottery pick in 2023, but considering he is already at or near that status in many draft projections this year, risking a drop in stock during a second season would seem to have diminishing returns.
“Really it was just kind of the feedback I was getting. When my thing came back, I sent it in and they gave it back to me and there was some good information,” Branham said about what prompted him to declare for the draft. “I was just thinking, ‘Why not?’ It’s just entering the draft process, seeing what I need to work on, just kind of getting feedback from teams also.”
While Branham showed promise early in his Buckeye career, he didn’t exactly resemble a lottery pick through his first 10 appearances. It wasn’t until after a near three-week break in action for the Buckeyes due to COVID-19 that Branham made a big jump, breaking out for 35 points against Nebraska on Jan. 2 after averaging just 6.3 points up until then.
Branham credited the work he put in during Ohio State’s pause in action as a primary factor in his rapid midseason development.
“Just putting the time in and just working hard, I feel like it’s going to get back to you at some point, which it did,” Branham said. “I started playing my best basketball the second half of the season.”
The Nebraska game wasn’t a fluke, as Branham averaged 17 points the rest of the way and earned third-team All-Big Ten status by the end of the regular season. But even during the final 10 games of Ohio State’s season, a stretch in which Branham was putting up 20 points per game on nearing 57 percent shooting, the Columbus native said he wasn’t yet mulling over his NBA draft decision.
“I really didn’t think about it, I was really just focused on winning, winning as many games as we can and just making a big run in the tournament,” Branham said. “So I wasn’t thinking about it, but then after the season ended, I took some time off and I feel like it was the best thing for me to do.”
Branham said part of his late-season motivation was to extend his time playing with Buckeye teammates for as long as possible, as he knew that regardless of his own decision about the future, it would be his last opportunity to take the floor with many – if not all – of the members of Ohio State’s 2021-22 roster.
“I love them guys in that locker room, I built a great bond with them throughout the year,” Branham said. “Like I said, I really wanted to get farther in there just to keep playing games with those guys, because I’m probably never gonna play a single game with those guys in the locker room ever again.”
Kalen Etzler, a fellow true freshman for the Buckeyes this past season, watched firsthand how Branham went from a first-year player wet behind the ears to a full-fledged star in the Big Ten. Etzler has been close with Branham since the two entered the program together, and side-by-side at Saturday's AAU event, Etzler said he was nothing but proud about his teammate's decision to turn pro.
“I’m so happy for him,” Etzler said Saturday. “I came in here and we go to breakfast every morning, go to class together, all that stuff. Just seeing him do, in the end, what he wants to do, going to play pro basketball – I’m so happy for him.”
But Branham hasn’t flown the coop just yet. Still awaiting the NBA Draft Combine in May, Branham has not yet heard from NBA general managers, instead hearing only what Holtmann has told him through his own communication with scouts and front offices.
Branham still trains with the Buckeye coaching staff, on occasion, in conjunction with his longtime personal trainer.
“I’m still working with the same trainers. I work with Coach Diebler probably once or twice every week, so I still work out with him,” Branham said. “Then I work out with my trainer, Jason Dawson.”
As far as the state in which Branham will presumably leave the Ohio State program, he believes the return of veteran forwards Justice Sueing and Seth Towns is a good first step, even if most of the faces around them will be new ones in 2022-23.
“I feel like them just having them two back, it’s leadership. They’ve been in college a couple years, they know how the program works and stuff like that,” Branham said. “So just bringing the leadership that I know they’re gonna bring, and then also probably looking at some transfers and stuff like that, too.”