OSU's Malaki Branham shows shades of LeBron James in taking home Ohio Mr. Basketball honor

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Malaki Branham is all smiles after receiving the 2021 Mr. Basketball award. Branham, an Ohio State signee, scored 1,501 career points and was named first-team all-state twice.

AKRON – The questions were delivered in a manner that only the closest of friends could get away with.

Seated inside LeBron James Arena, Malaki Branham had three significant pieces of hardware with him. Sandwiched between the 2018 and 2021 Ohio Division II state championship trophies was the reason Branham, his family, coaches and friends were gathered inside the gym at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary on Thursday afternoon. There, Branham was formally recognized as Ohio Mr. Basketball, putting an exclamation mark on a storied high school career.

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After speeches from athletic director Willie McGee and coach Dru Joyce II, Branham was taking questions from reporters when a gaggle of his friends approached him. One of them gestured to the three jerseys hanging in the rafters behind Branham, one of which belonged to LeBron James. Moments earlier, McGee, who was prep teammates with James, drew some comparisons between the school’s two Mr. Basketball honorees — Branham and three-time winner James — and one of Branham’s friends added to it.

"I feel like (yours) should be up there,” he said, referencing Branham’s jersey.

It’s the only honor left for him at the prep level, and McGee said it could happen as soon as five years. Thursday, though, was about appreciating the laundry list of accomplishments that the soon-to-be Ohio State freshman put together during his four seasons with the Fighting Irish.

That includes 1,501 career points, fourth-most in program history, two first-team all-state awards and, now Mr. Basketball.

“It feels good,” Branham said. “I think I ended my high school career on a good note. It feels great to be able to get two state championships and also win Mr. Basketball. It’s a dream come true.”

As a senior, Branham helped his team to a 25-2 record while averaging 21.3 points per game, 5.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals. He scored 37 in the state title game against DeSales.

He is the first Ohio Mr. Basketball to sign with Ohio State since Westerville South’s Kaleb Wesson in 2017 and the 10th overall on a list that doesn’t include Medina’s Tony Stockman, who split the 2000 award and signed with Clemson before transferring to the Buckeyes.

Malaki Branham averaged 21.3 points per game as a senior.

Branham figures to immediately assume an important role on an Ohio State team that has been projected as high as No. 2 in the nation in early rankings for next year despite a first-round upset loss to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts in the NCAA Tournament. At No. 29 nationally in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, he is the highest-rated recruit to sign for Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann.

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That could change within a week. Five-star center Efton Reid will announce his decision April 15 and has the Buckeyes among his three finalists, and Branham said he has spoken with the 7-foot Richmond, Virginia, native recently.

“I talked to him a couple of days ago when I was in Columbus with my family,” Branham said. “Coach (Ryan) Pedon was on a group FaceTime call. He called me and Efton was on the phone so I talked to him. He’s committing soon. Hopefully we get him.

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“We need some size, too, since E.J. Liddell’s like 6-7 and he’s the center. If we get him, I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

Wednesday, Branham posted a video to Uninterrupted, a website co-founded by James billed as “an athlete empowerment brand” where the shooting guard says, “Anything worth having is worth working for... and the journey has been worth the reward.”

Although they’ve never met face-to-face, James retweeted it to his 49.5 million Twitter followers.

It’s not the first time James has shouted out Branham on social media, and when he does, “It kind of blows up, since he’s the best player in the world and everybody follows him,” Branham said. “It’s crazy to see that.”

As for the jersey … hanging next to James are the jerseys for Curtis Wilson and Jerome Lane, the only players to have scored more points than Branham.

“Hopefully my number is up there,” Branham said with a smile. “Hopefully.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy