A major career milestone for Malaki Branham and E.J. Liddell is set to transpire in a mere matter of hours.
Both Buckeye stars are on the verge of being drafted to the NBA, a lifelong goal for each amid their respective basketball journeys, and the highest level of the sport awaits thereafter. Although both are widely pegged as first-round selections on Thursday, just for both to be drafted at all would mark a historic night for the Ohio State basketball program. Not since 2007, when Greg Oden (No. 1 overall), Mike Conley (No. 4) and Daequan Cook (No. 22) were all drafted in the first round, have multiple Buckeyes been taken in the NBA draft.
Whichever Buckeye is taken first on Thursday will be the first Ohio State player drafted in four years since Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop was selected with the 48th overall pick in the second round in 2018. Should Branham, Liddell or both be taken in the first round, they’d be the first Buckeyes to earn that status since D’Angelo Russell was taken No. 2 overall in 2015. Branham will also be the first player since Russell to be drafted after just one year at Ohio State.
For Chris Holtmann in particular, Branham and Liddell will be the first-ever NBA draftees that he both recruited out of high school and developed in college. Bates-Diop was drafted to the NBA following Holtmann’s first season with the Buckeyes, but the Illinois native spent three previous years with the program under the tutelage of Thad Matta, who recruited him out of high school. If drafted in the opening round, Branham and Liddell will become the first two first-round NBA draft picks that Holtmann has produced as a head coach.
As for where exactly Branham and Liddell will end up on Thursday, that’s still up in the air, even if most (not all) analysts seem to agree that both Buckeyes will go in the first round. With the draft taking place tonight, we’ve rounded up eight prominent NBA mock drafts to take inventory of the prevailing opinions on where Branham and Liddell might land on Thursday night.
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
- The Athletic's John Hollinger
CBS Sports: Round 1, No. 15 overall, Charlotte Hornets
Tankathon: Round 1, No. 15 overall, Charlotte Hornets
Sports Illustrated: Round 1, No. 16 overall, Atlanta Hawks
The Athletic: Round 1, No. 16 overall, Atlanta Hawks
NBA Draft Room: Round 1, No. 17 overall, Houston Rockets
ESPN: Round 1, No. 18 overall, Chicago Bulls
Bleacher Report: Round 1, No. 18 overall, Chicago Bulls
The Ringer: Round 1, No. 21 overall, Denver Nuggets
The debate surrounding Branham’s draft stock has more to do with whether or not he will be a lottery pick than it does with his prospects of being a first-round pick. Holtmann believes Branham already has the latter portion of that equation locked down, telling 97.1 The Fan on Monday that Branham “definitely will” be selected in the first 30 picks.
“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.”
In our first mock draft roundup last month, eight different outlets had the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year going anywhere from the No. 13 pick to No. 18, with four prognosticators predicting the Columbus native to land with the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 14. The fit seems to make sense given Branham's Ohio roots. Before his breakout season with the Buckeyes, Branham played high school basketball at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Marys, which also produced LeBron James as a Cavs draft pick nearly 20 years ago.
This time around, though, not a single mock draft found for our compilation has Branham going higher than No. 15 overall to the Charlotte Hornets. Both CBS Sports and Tankathon have Branham going in that slot, which means the Cavs would have passed him up and his status as a lottery pick would have slipped away by a single pick.
Six other outlets have Branham falling anywhere from 16 to 21. The Ringer has the lowest possible landing spot for Branham, placing him outside the top 20 picks and falling to the Denver Nuggets. Both Sports Illustrated and The Athletic see Branham going at No. 16 to the Atlanta Hawks, while ESPN and Bleacher Report think Branham will be selected at No. 18 by the Chicago Bulls. NBA Draft Room predicts Branham will go No. 17 overall to the Houston Rockets.
According to HoopsHype, Branham has worked out with seven teams ahead of the NBA draft: The Hawks, Hornets, Cavs, Rockets, Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards. One of those teams may very well end up taking the 19-year-old tonight.
The Ringer: Round 1, No. 18 overall, Chicago Bulls
The Athletic: Round 1, No. 18 overall, Chicago Bulls
Tankathon: Round 1, No. 19 overall, Minnesota Timberwolves
CBS Sports: Round 1, No. 20 overall, San Antonio Spurs
NBA Draft Room: Round 1, No. 22 overall, Memphis Grizzlies
ESPN: Round 1, No. 24 overall, Milwaukee Bucks
Bleacher Report: Round 1, No. 24 overall, Milwaukee Bucks
Sports Illustrated: Round 2, No. 34 overall, Oklahoma City Thunder
While Branham’s stock seems to have slipped ever so slightly from our first mock draft roundup to now, Liddell’s appears to have incrementally increased. Just one outlet in our initial compilation had the three-year college hoops veteran going higher than No. 20 back in late May, but three now have Liddell being selected in the teens as the draft approaches.
Holtmann wasn’t quite as sure of Liddell’s first-round status as he was with Branham’s during his radio appearance on Monday, but still said he expects the two-time All-Big Ten performer to be taken within the first 30 picks.
“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,” Holtmann said. “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 mock drafts we used for this roundup are mostly in agreement. Only one prognosticator had Liddell slipping out of the first round, as Sports Illustrated had Liddell going No. 34 overall to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Besides that, the seven other mock drafts we looked at placed Liddell anywhere from 18 to 24.
The Ringer, The Athletic, Tankathon and CBS Sports all had Liddell being taken within the first 20 picks. The first two of those outlets have Liddell going 18th to the Bulls, while Tankathon and CBS Sports have him at 19 and 20 to the Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs, respectively.
NBA Draft Room, ESPN and Bleacher Report all see Liddell being taken somewhere in the mid-20s, with the latter two envisioning the Bucks taking him with the 24th overall pick and NBA Draft Room placing Liddell at No. 22 to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Liddell has worked out with the Cavs, Hawks, Nuggets, Bulls, Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors before the draft, per HoopsHype. But no matter where he lands, Holtmann thinks Liddell can contribute straight away.
“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.”