Dreams will be realized for a pair of Buckeyes in just two days’ time.
The NBA draft approaches on Thursday night, and something would have to go awry for either Malaki Branham or E.J. Liddell to not hear their name called – if not in the first round. Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said Monday on 97.1 The Fan that Branham’s first-round status is a virtual lock, while Liddell’s own landing spot may see a bit more unpredictable.
Holtmann envisions a bright future for both his former scarlet and gray stars at the next level, and thinks each has a chance to end up with stable franchises due to their potential positioning in the draft.
“I do feel like both guys will be (first-round picks). Malaki definitely will. I would expect Malaki to be well within the first round,” Holtmann said in an appearance on The Buckeye Show. “What that looks like, it’s still fluid. It’s still fluid up until, really, through the time he gets picked, because everything’s predicated on who goes where. But I do think that we’ll have both guys (in the first round).
“I think maybe there’s a little more fluidity with E.J. than with Malaki, but I would anticipate both guys to be in the first round. Certainly both guys will get drafted. My hope is just that they go to great situations. Regardless of everyone wants to get picked higher, but you just want them to be in great situations where they’re gonna be developed and be able to make an impact and have a long career.”
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year after a breakout year with the Buckeyes, Branham is widely projected to be a late lottery pick on Thursday. In terms of his trajectory in the NBA, Holtmann has heard scouts compare the smooth 6-foot-5 shooting guard to three-time All-Star and NBA champion Khris Middleton, and despite a bit of a size difference between the two, the resemblance in their game is not one the Buckeye coach disagrees with.
“it’s something we needed to do here sooner rather than later. So it’s a great success. More than that though and what it does for our program, I’m just gonna be extremely proud and happy for our guys.”– Chris Holtmann
“Middleton from Milwaukee’s a guy that I’ve kind of always looked at and said, ‘I can see (a comparison),’” Holtmann said. “He’s a little bit longer and bigger than Malaki, but Malaki’s length and elite shotmaking – and Middleton’s turned into a heck of a player, I mean a phenomenal player – so I’ve seen that comparable and I’ve talked to some NBA teams about that comparable with Malaki.”
For Liddell, a name that has often been thrown around in recent months is Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams, who possesses a similar physical makeup and versatile skill set to the two-time All-Big Ten performer. Williams was the No. 22 pick out of Tennessee in the 2019 draft, and after landing with a perennial contender in Boston, the former Volunteer impressed as an X-factor in its run to the NBA Finals this summer.
Holtmann doesn’t necessarily see it as a one-to-one comparison, but thinks Liddell could quickly become a reliable contributor for a successful NBA franchise in much the same way.
“A lot of the NBA teams, whether it’s general managers or scouts that have called us, have brought the Grant Williams comparison to E.J. Grant Williams came out of Tennesse, similar build, similar body type,” Holtmann said. “Different games; E.J.’s a more polished offensive player, Grant at this stage was a better mover, E.J.’s a better shot blocker. I think E.J.’s got better touch, Grant is a terrific athlete, maybe has a little bit of an edge there. Both guys are gonna be very good, productive, long pros. I think what they both have in common is they’re phenomenal people. So I’ve watched that one.”
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
In fact, Liddell may be ready to contribute even earlier than Branham, given the extra two seasons he had to develop his game at the college level. Branham’s upside is undeniable, but Liddell is likely the more proven commodity of the pair, considering his additional experience in Big Ten play.
“You have one guy who is really young and people see this incredible potential in, and that’s obviously why he’s shot up the draft boards, in Malaki. And then you have another guy who’s proven that he’s ready to go and ready to impact an NBA – and not that Malaki’s not – but E.J’s ready to impact an NBA franchise,” Holtmann said. “And I think that’s two great examples of each guy kind of going his own path and having great success.”
Holtmann is thrilled for Branham, who is expected to become the first player Holtmann has recruited out of high school to reach NBA draftee status, but Liddell’s journey is one the Ohio State coach hopes to model to young players moving forward.
“We knew we were gonna lose E.J., we did not anticipate by any stretch that we were gonna lose Malaki. But you certainly have to adjust at this level,” Holtmann said. “But E.J.’s handled that really, really well, and he’s run his own race. His race was be in college for three years and grow and develop his game, and he is a perfect example of what can happen when you return another year in college and you’re in sync with the coaching staff about player development and you get better.
“It doesn’t always happen. As a matter of fact, you can probably site as many examples where guys kind of stay where they were, or in some ways they do lose their draft value. His draft value shot up. He improved by as many as 20, 25 positions, and it’s a credit to the kid.”
While Branham and Liddell will be the first two NBA draftees who played solely for Holtmann at Ohio State, the number of NBA Buckeyes has steadily increased in recent years. Despite not being drafted a year ago, Duane Washington Jr. was something of a surprise success story with the Indiana Pacers as a rookie, and soon two more of Holtmann’s brightest Buckeyes will have a chance to prove his program can consistently produce standouts at the next level.
“Mike Conley’s been in the playoffs and made some deep runs, but I’m excited about Mike and D’Angelo (Russell) and hopefully some of these other guys, whether it’s Duane (Washington) or Keita (Bates-Diop), some of these other guys – Buckeyes – getting deep runs in the playoffs. Because it’s just more fun when you’re watching one of your own guys or a guy from your program.”
There’s no doubt that losing both Branham and Liddell – particularly Branham, given his early departure – will create a void for Ohio State entering the 2022-23 season. But Holtmann also knows two first-round draft picks in the same year could work wonders for his program on the recruiting trail. More important than either of those things, for Holtmann, is the accomplishments awaiting his pupils this week and beyond.
“In our couple years here, people have asked and recruits have asked, ‘Hey, have you had guys that you’ve recruited that have been drafted?’ And obviously, now you have the opportunity to say that, and it does kind of put you in a different level in terms of being able to communicate that to recruits and their families,” Holtmann said. “And I think it is really helpful in terms of future recruiting. It’s something we needed to do, it’s something we needed to do here sooner rather than later. So it’s a great success.
“More than that though and what it does for our program, I’m just gonna be extremely proud and happy for our guys.”