The lottery balls have fallen into place, the draft order is set and the combine is in the books.
The NBA draft is now under a month away and two former Buckeyes are expected to hear their names called before the first 30 picks are in on June 23. Per most prognosticators, Malaki Branham and E.J. Liddell are slated as virtual first-round locks, which would give Ohio State its first Round 1 draft choices since D’Angelo Russell in 2015 (and first overall draft selection since Keita Bates-Diop was a second-round pick in 2018).
Branham and Liddell are in line to be Chris Holtmann’s first-ever first-round draft picks, a noteworthy benchmark in its own right that he hopes will pay dividends for his program down the line.
“It’s certainly an important moment for us to have a couple guys drafted this year,” Holtmann said when Branham officially announced his intentions to remain in the NBA draft process back in late April. “There's no question it’s important. It’s something we want to see on a consistent basis, and we hope that this is the beginning of that.”
The only thing that halted Branham from definitively deciding to leave the Ohio State program earlier in the offseason was the question of whether or not he would be a first-round pick, and it’s clear he received all necessary assurances not long thereafter. Neither Branham nor Liddell played in the five-on-five scrimmages at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago during the latter half of the week, which was just another indication that both feel confident about their standing.
But which NBA team exactly each Buckeye might land still remains up for debate for the time being, with just over four weeks remaining for players to jockey for position on draft boards around the league. To get a better look at where both former scarlet and gray standouts might end up as they make the jump to the next level, we surveyed several mock drafts to try and triangulate a consensus range for each player.
You can check out each of the mock drafts referenced in our roundup below:
- ESPN's Jonathan Givony
- NBA Draft Room
- CBS Sports' David Cobb
- Sports Illustrated's Jeremy Woo
- The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor
- Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman
- NBC Sports' Chase Hughes and Mike Deprisco
Using input from each of those eight mock drafts, here’s a rundown of where some of the foremost NBA draft experts and analysts think Branham and Liddell will wind up on draft night.
G Malaki Branham
NBA Draft Room: Round 1, No. 13 overall, Charlotte Hornets
Bleacher Report: Round 1, No. 14 overall, Cleveland Cavaliers
CBS Sports: Round 1, No. 14 overall, Cleveland Cavaliers
ESPN: Round 1, No. 14 overall, Cleveland Cavaliers
Sports Illustrated: Round 1, No. 14 overall, Cleveland Cavaliers
Tankathon: Round 1, No. 16 overall, Atlanta Hawks
NBC Sports: Round 1, No. 18 overall, Chicago Bulls
The Ringer: Round 1, No. 18 overall, Chicago Bulls
Not present on many (if any) preseason draft boards, Branham’s red-hot run through the Big Ten schedule made his stock soar as the season wore on for Ohio State. After averaging just 6.3 points through the first 10 games of the season, Branham put up 17 a night in the final 22, with 20.2 per game in the last 10 contests of the year.
They would prove to be the last 10 of his college career, too, as Branham did enough in just one season to ensure an NBA future. Now Branham is on the fringe of being a lottery pick, as five of the eight mock drafts used for this article have the Columbus native going within the first 14 selections.
The most common landing spot would actually keep Branham in his home state, as ESPN, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report are all projecting him to be scooped up by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the No. 14 overall selection.
A former Mr. Ohio Basketball award winner, Branham played high school basketball at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Marys, and even received a shoutout from fellow alum LeBron James on Twitter upon declaring for the draft. If selected by Cleveland, those parallels would only be strengthened.
Good luck nephew!!! https://t.co/86fqRdT5Fg— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 1, 2022
In an interview with ESPN during last week’s combine, Branham cited Cleveland’s Caris LeVert – also a Columbus native – as a player he often studies due to their similar build and skill set. If the Cavs end up picking Branham, perhaps he’ll be able to play alongside the former Michigan Wolverine and six-year NBA vet.
Only one of the eight mock drafts had Branham coming off the board before the Cavs’ pick. NBA Draft Room projects Branham will go to the Charlotte Hornets at No. 13, which is the highest slot of any mock for Branham. No mock had Branham going any lower than No. 18, as both NBC Sports and The Ringer have the smooth two-guard going to the Chicago Bulls at No. 18.
The list of teams Branham interviewed with at the combine included the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. None of the mocks included any of these teams as potential landing spots for Branham.
Ohio State's Malaki Branham conducted a Pro Day in front of a packed house of decision makers at the NBA Combine. The projected lottery pick showed his fluidity and smooth mid-range game while mixing in some unexpected defensive drills. pic.twitter.com/TMzK89FXa3— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 21, 2022
F E.J. Liddell
The Ringer: Round 1, No. 17 overall, Houston Rockets
Sports Illustrated: Round 1, No. 20 overall, San Antonio Spurs
ESPN: Round 1, No. 24 overall, Milwaukee Bucks
NBC Sports: Round 1, No. 24 overall, Milwaukee Bucks
Bleacher Report: Round 1, No. 25 overall, San Antonio Spurs
CBS Sports: Round 1, No. 25 overall, San Antonio Spurs
Tankathon: Round 1, No. 26 overall, Dallas Mavericks
NBA Draft Room: Round 1, No. 27 overall, Miami Heat
If Liddell would have stayed in the draft a year ago, he may have gone undrafted. With just two years of college experience under his belt at the time, Liddell didn’t even receive an invite to the NBA Draft Combine, and the one Buckeye who did (Duane Washington) went undrafted.
But following a career-best season that earned him first-team All-Big Ten and third-team AP All-American honors, Liddell is a surefire draft pick. A couple of his measurables at the combine may even help his stock a bit further. The versatile forward’s wingspan was only a quarter inch shy of 7-foot, and Liddell’s 35.5-inch standing vertical leap was the high mark for the entire event.
Of course, Liddell’s Ohio State tape will show teams plenty already, given the 19.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game he averaged as a junior. He had to make some adjustments last season – playing on the perimeter more, shooting more threes and proving his versatility defensively – and some of them will have to continue to be made at the next level. But what he has shown so far just might make Liddell a top-20 pick come June.
Great time breaking down film with Ohio State forward EJ Liddell at the NBA Combine. Day one contributor at the next level with the type of defensive versatility and motor that has helped Grant Williams carve out such an important role in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/6C5RP1rjFE— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 21, 2022
Of the eight mock drafts we surveyed, only The Ringer has Liddell being taken inside the first 20 picks. It is also the only projection that sees Liddell being selected ahead of Branham, who O’Connor has going No. 18 to the Bulls after the Rockets taking Liddell with the 17th pick.
The other seven mocks see Liddell going somewhere between pick 20 and pick 27, with the most common landing spot being the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs have both the 20th and 25th picks, giving them two opportunities to look at Liddell should he still be on the board. The Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat are also listed as potential destinations for Liddell in various mocks.
Although not likely to jump into lottery territory, Liddell could be well-positioned for immediate team success as a late first-round pick for a stable organization. Having garnered comparisons to Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams, who has been a difference-maker at times during the playoffs, Liddell will hope to have a similarly tangible impact sooner rather than later in the NBA.