“Nowhere On Any Draft Boards” Before His Freshman Season, Malaki Branham is All In On NBA Future As Projected First-Round Draft Pick

By Griffin Strom on April 27, 2022 at 6:31 pm
Malaki Branham

Malaki Branham did not assume he’d be a one-and-done at Ohio State.

In fact, Chris Holtmann said the amount of minutes Branham projected himself to log as a first-year player entering the year actually displayed a level of humility and self-awareness despite his status as a top-50 recruit and the No. 1 player in Ohio.

But Branham, who officially announced Wednesday that he will hire an agent and remain in the 2022 NBA draft, didn’t necessarily plan on an extended stay in the Buckeye program. At least, not if he could perform up to his potential.

“I wasn’t thinking about four years at all,” Branham said with a smile before looking to his left to see his head coach’s reaction to the comment at Wednesday’s press conference.

“That’s good to know,” Holtmann said sarcastically before a grin engulfed his expression.

Branham said “if I had a good season, it was possible” he would quickly make the jump to the NBA, and after just 32 games in a scarlet and gray uniform, the Columbus native has become the Buckeyes’ first one-and-done since D’Angelo Russell – the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Branham said that alone is a “big accomplishment” for him personally, especially given his Buckeye State upbringing.

He might have hoped for the meteoric rise he ultimately had, but Branham didn’t enter the programs with any delusions of grandeur.

“I didn’t know what to expect this season,” Branham said. “Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t know how many minutes I was going to play. But just putting in the work, throughout the season as we started playing games, my confidence grew. Probably at the end of the season I kind of (knew) it was a possibility of me being a one-and-done player. I want to give a special thanks to Coach Holtmann for believing in me, trusting in my abilities. Putting me in the last couple minutes of a college game as a freshman, there’s a big trust right there and I appreciate him for doing that.”

Branham made the game-tying assist in the waning seconds of the very first game of the 2021-22 season, allowing the Buckeyes to stave off a season-opening scare at home against Akron, and although he’d experience growing pains over the following month-and-a-half, the signs of a future star had been foreshadowed.

While Branham’s breakout performance came in the form of a 35-point explosion against Nebraska on Jan. 2, he said the real turning point came in late February, when he scored 27 points on nearly 70 percent shooting and dished an assist to E.J. Liddell that forced overtime in an eventual win over Indiana.

“The Indiana game was probably the biggest game for me, just slowing down, making the right reads, how they were playing me, making the right passes to my teammates so they can get a bucket like E.J. did in the last couple seconds of the game,” Branham said.

It was that same night Holtmann texted multiple friends, as well as Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, to let them know Branham might not be around past the end of the season.

Holtmann said “I don’t think anybody” anticipated quite how fast Branham would become a bona fide top NBA prospect, but it was after the Buckeyes’ second matchup with Indiana – and not the Nebraska game – that it seemed to turn into a reality.

“Malaki knows this, his great trainer (Jason Dawson) knows it, his family knows it, he was not on any draft boards coming into the season. He was nowhere on any draft boards,” Holtmann said. “He wasn’t in the top 80 in a lot of those. But what I think people saw is how good he really is. I always felt like he was undervalued as a player, to be honest with you. I think he’s an elite player. And what people have seen is his age combined with his length and his really special touch. When you combine his physical tools with who he is as a person and as a player, I think you have a really, really special NBA player. I’m 100 percent convinced of that. He’s just scratching the surface on the kind of player he’s gonna be.”

Although Holtmann may have rolled his eyes a bit at the notion that Branham never thought about the possibility of a four-year college career, the reality is neither was Holtmann. But it was the final 10-game stretch of the season, one in which Branham averaged 20.2 points per game on 56.6 percent shooting in Ohio State’s biggest games of the year, that let Holtmann know just how short Branham’s collegiate tenure might be.

“I wasn’t thinking about four years either. I wasn’t. I did think that maybe it would be a two-year process, a three-year process,” Holtmann said. “But this is a blessing for him and his family, and that’s the way I look at it.”

Once the season ended and the possibility of testing the draft process became more tangible, Branham wanted to figure out exactly where he might go if he were to leave the college ranks. Branham said first-round status would likely cement his decision, and Holtmann said word from scouts and executives in recent weeks has all but confirmed that will be the case come late June, barring any unforeseen circumstance.

“We’ve had a lot of really healthy conversations with NBA executives, whether it’s a general manager or someone in their scouting department, and the consensus has been very positive. They certainly give us a range of what that’s gonna be, and it’s been pretty consistent, but it’s all been well within the first round,” Holtmann said. “Trust me, that has been a consensus. Obviously that factored into Malaki’s decision as much as anything is there have been really positive conversations. He’ll have to do workouts here in the coming weeks to continue to solidify his status and go through the NBA combine, but I think the feedback we’ve gotten in the last month has been so positive about the way they view him that I think it did kind of press him into making a decision here quickly.”

With most of the feedback going through Holtmann and Dawson rather than directly to Branham, he said he hasn’t specifically heard what teams would like for him to improve before reaching the next level. What he has heard, though, is that impressive performances in next month’s NBA draft combine and team workouts will likely enable him to continue climbing up draft boards before June 23.

In just three months, Branham could go from a freshman at Ohio State to a first-round NBA draft selection. But as quickly as Branham’s life has changed, it’s only been a slightly faster track than expected toward the ultimate goals he's long been in pursuit of.

“It definitely happened quick. Especially the second half of the season, it kind of came quick,” Branham said. “I learned a lot, just being patient, waiting my turn and kind of just working towards my dream and taking one day at a time.”

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