A lengthy text message landed in Chris Holtmann’s inbox the morning after an early season game in which one of his promising young players didn’t perform particularly well.
It was Malaki Branham, who was still finding his footing amid the first 10 games of his college career, having already earned a starting role for the Buckeyes as a true freshman but averaging just 6.3 points per game and shooting under 40 percent from the field. But after struggling more than usual during one off night, Branham mulled things over during one of his customary bright-and-early workout sessions and sent a message to his head coach by 7 a.m.
“He texted me and said, ‘Hey coach, I just want to thank you. You promised in recruiting me that you would allow me to play through mistakes, and I made a lot of them last night. I just want to thank you for letting me play through them,’” Holtmann said Wednesday.
A few months later it was Holtmann sending a text of his own, but this time after a game in which Branham performed considerably better. In fact, it was one of his finest nights of the season, and one he referred to as a turning point, as the 6-foot-5 guard scored 27 points on 9-for-13 shooting in a dramatic win over Indiana. Beyond just scoring, Branham also dished an assist in the waning moments of regulation to send things to overtime at the Schottenstein Center.
The text Holtmann sent in the aftermath was not to Branham, who likely received enough praise from his head coach in the locker room after the game. Instead, the message went to Ohio State’s athletic director.
“I texted my boss, Gene Smith, and said, ‘We need to plan on Malaki not being here next year,’” Holtmann said.
Branham’s final decision on whether or not to stay in school or head to the NBA after being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and earning third-team all-conference honors was not officially announced until Wednesday, when the Columbus native appeared at a press conference to announce he will hire an agent and fully pursue the draft process.
Following the announcement, Holtmann admitted that before Branham’s red-hot late-season stretch, which included the aforementioned matchup with Indiana, he expected Branham would be back for a sophomore season in 2022-23.
Now, of course, Ohio State’s outlook for the season ahead has changed.
“A player of his caliber leaving maybe a year earlier than you thought, let’s be honest, it completely changes the complexion of your roster. So you really have to make plans,” Holtmann said. “And I do think in a day when the transfer portal has changed things with immediate eligibility, perhaps it gives you the chance to step in. Back when this was the case before, immediate eligibility was not in place, so I think that maybe helps us a little bit. But we’ve been recruiting with the idea, really for a couple months, that it was likely that we were gonna lose Malaki. Ever since his run mid-year.”
Even if Branham’s mind wasn't totally made up just yet, the writing was on the wall early enough for Holtmann and company to begin thinking about how to best go about supplementing what Branham does for the Buckeyes in the event that he wouldn’t return.
“We felt it was trending in this direction for a while now,” Holtmann said. “I don’t think we had a definitive answer until (Tuesday), but we knew it was trending in this direction, so it allowed us to plan accordingly in terms of who we were recruiting. … We’ve been planning for a little bit that this was likely the case. I just think his trajectory made us begin to contemplate the idea that we were gonna have to find a replacement.
“And we also have a couple good, young guards coming in, they’re going to be forced into action maybe a little bit more, a little bit earlier than even they anticipated. We’re excited about putting those guys in those positions. We’ve got Bruce (Thornton) and Roddy (Gayle) who are both young guards, they’re going to be expected to play a little more now, and obviously we went to the transfer portal as well. So we’ve been making the plans for a couple months along these lines.”
Thornton and Gayle, both four-star, top-50 prospects in the class of 2022, sound like they can expect to see legitimate opportunities to play straight away for the Buckeyes upon arrival, but the Buckeyes have also made moves in the transfer portal to address the loss of Branham at the guard position.
Considered one of the top transfers in the country in the early offseason, former Wright State guard Tanner Holden – who averaged 20.1 points per game last year – signed with the Buckeyes in early April. Just this past Sunday, Ohio State earned the commitment of West Virginia transfer guard Sean McNeil, who scored 12.2 points per game for the Mountaineers in 2020-21.
No player in that group of four is likely to be a one-to-one match for Branham, but a by-committee approach may be all Ohio State can ask for when attempting to replace a potential top-15 pick in the upcoming draft.
No matter how much time Holtmann has had to plan for Branham’s departure, it’s no secret the loss of a star won’t help the Buckeye roster in the immediate future. But Holtmann, who encouraged Branham to test the NBA draft process in the first place and sat next him at Wednesday’s press conference, is chiefly concerned with helping his pupil realize his dreams.
“What’s best for the young man (is most important),” Holtmann said. “Ultimately that’s why we’re doing this. Obviously we understand the hit that losing a player of his caliber does to our roster. That’s reality. And you don’t plan for it. In our minds, we planned on him coming back and certainly leading the charge as a sophomore, but he progressed in a phenomenal way and I’m thrilled for it. There is a bittersweet element of it, but it’s much more sweet than bitter.”