AKRON – If you want the full story on Malaki Branham’s smile, the one that belies a fierce competitive streak, it’s best to start with grandma.
In his speech complimenting the latest Ohio Mr. Basketball winner, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary athletic director Willie McGee made a reference to Branham’s ability to smile in the most intense moments of a game. It was early April, and Branham flashed that smile while seated at center court inside LeBron James Arena, one that Ohio State fans will see this fall.
McGee compared it to one often brandished by his former teammate, and the pride of his alma mater whose name is on the court. But if you talk to Luzon Branham, Malaki’s grandmother, she’ll tell you the truth about the future Buckeye’s smile – with her eyes clenched shut, her mouth forced into the look of a child trying too hard.
She’s got the pictures back home from those pre-middle school years.
“(I’d say,) ‘That’s not how you take a smile, Malaki. Can’t you relax that smile?’ ” she said with a chuckle. “Now he’s gotten used to it and everything. He loosened up in middle school.”
The finished product was on display during his award ceremony, one that featured speeches on his behalf, photos with family and friends and a final chance to celebrate a memorable prep career. In four seasons with the Irish, Branham won two state titles, scored 1,501 points and capped it all by becoming the 10th Ohio State signee to take home the top individual award in the state.
He’s the first from St. Vincent-St. Mary to win it since James.
“I’ve noticed a couple of similarities in their games,” McGee said. “As intense as they are and as competitive as they are, they find a way to smile in some of the most intense moments. That’s a love affair with the game that may people don’t possess.”
Getting to this point took Branham from Ridgeview Middle School in Columbus to Akron, where he lived with his uncle, Lawrence, and played for coach Dru Joyce II. Growing up, his grandma would bring him upstairs and sit him in front of the television to study the game. Matia Branham, his mother, ran track and played volleyball in high school but played enough basketball to be able to help him work on his free-throw shooting.
They were all there on a sunny afternoon to mark the occasion with Malaki.
“It makes me happy that I did my job as his mother and let him follow his dreams and do what he needed to do,” Matia Branham said. “You put in the hard work, you do what you need to do and things will come to you. As we see now, this is what we have, Ohio’s Mr. 2021 Basketball.”
An abnormal senior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary
When Branham signed with the Buckeyes in November, he did so with the hope of simply having a senior season. A potential run at a state title as a junior had been canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, and it was unclear what the 2020-21 high school season might look like.
At St. Vincent-St. Mary, students had the opportunity to attend in-school learning or go fully virtual. Branham chose the latter and achieved his family’s goal of keeping his grade-point average higher than 3.5 while on his uncle’s watch.
VIDEO: STVM's Malaki Branham accepts Ohio Mr. Basketball award
Ashley Bastock, Akron Beacon Journal
“The thing with Malaki is, if you tell him what to do he’ll get it done,” Lawrence Branham said. “He was great about waking up at 8 a.m. to make sure he was online and when he was done, school was over. You can’t get to this next level if you’re not handling business in the classroom first. He got that.”
On the court, he reached the 1,000-point mark in a 70-57 win against Richmond Heights on Dec. 28. It came on a layup after which play was stopped, Branham was recognized and the game resumed.
It was after a loss that he gave Joyce a guarantee. In a Jan. 24 game, the Irish took a 73-56 loss to Hyattsville (Maryland) DeMatha Catholic as part of the Chet Mason Invitational. It was the second loss of the season for the team, and Branham had had enough.
“We had an opportunity to win that game and we let it get away,” Joyce said. “He made a comment after the game that, ‘Coach, we’re not gonna lose anymore.’ It was kinda prophetic, but it also required more work and effort.”
“I don’t like to lose,” Malaki said. “I wanted to do anything I could. I think that next day of practice I was getting on everybody, just making sure if they’re not going to do their best I’m going to get on them.”
McGee said it was rare to drive by the school and not see Lawrence’s car there as Malaki put in extra work inside the gym. Both praised Malaki’s commitment to his body, something else he has in common with James. During the summer, McGee said he’d see Malaki using a red massage gun after workouts — “I should’ve known then he was going to Ohio State,” he said with a laugh — and Joyce credited his willingness to seek out preventative treatments.
After dealing with some ankle issues early in his high school career, Branham now would make sure to get his ankles taped before every practice without being reminded. Afterward, it was into the ice bath.
Buckeyes recruiting: Dogged approach helped Ohio State land Malaki Branham
“We didn’t have to ask him about those kinds of things,” Joyce said. “He did those on his own. That shows a level of maturity that you don’t always see.”
It all would pay off.
Ready for Ohio State and a different role
position at shooting guard. On account of his size (6 feet 5, 195 pounds) relative to STVM’s opponents, he spent much of his high school career on the block rather than the perimeter.
That won’t be the case at Ohio State, but it was a role Joyce said Malaki embraced.
“For all these years, he’s played out of position,” the coach said. “He just did it. He never complained, at least to me. Just went about it and encouraged other guys.”
Despite that, Branham is the top Ohioan in his class, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings, a four-star prospect and the No. 30 player in the nation. He’s the highest-rated recruit to sign with the Buckeyes since both D’Angelo Russell (No. 16) and Keita Bates-Diop (29) were part of the 2014 class. On an Ohio State team awaiting a decision from Duane Washington Jr. as he evaluates his NBA draft stock, Branham is in line for an impactful role immediately upon arrival.
Malaki described the challenge that lies ahead as a “different ballgame,” a new level of competition that he’s aware will require growth, maturity and patience.
Kind of like his smile.
“That’s what everybody remembers him for, is for his smile,” his mom said, thinking back to his early days. “He was smiling then. He’s always been a smiler.”
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