Dogged approach helped Ohio State land Malaki Branham

Adam Jardy
Malaki Branham, a combo guard from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in the class of 2021, attended the Ohio State football game Saturday night against Michigan State as part of his official visit.

It wasn’t just that Ohio State was persistent in its recruitment of Malaki Branham. It wasn’t necessarily that the Buckeyes had a better plan, better relationships or a better sales pitch than the other schools recruiting him.

In the end, it was the fact that Ohio State saw the four-star guard as someone other than a kid from its backyard or just a kid from Akron and recruited him accordingly. And Wednesday afternoon, when Branham posted a video to Twitter at exactly 2:22, it paid off for coach Chris Holtmann and his staff with a commitment from the biggest target on their 2021 recruiting board.

“I chose them because they didn’t recruit me like an in-state kid,” Branham told The Dispatch. “They never stopped calling me and never got too comfortable.”

It was a journey that began years ago, when Branham’s mother and grandmother were looking for a trainer to help him start to develop as a basketball player. He was in fifth grade at the time, and he started working out with Jason Dawson, a Worthington Christian product who had transferred from Wofford to Gardner Webb in 2010 for two years. By the time Branham had reached seventh grade, Dawson said, it was clear something special was developing.

After playing for Ridgeview Middle School, Branham moved to Akron to live with his uncle, Lawrence, and attend basketball powerhouse St. Vincent-St. Mary. There, Ohio State assistant coach Ryan Pedon began recruiting him during the summer after his freshman season, leading to an eventual scholarship offer and a growing relationship with Holtmann in addition to Pedon.

Throughout, they never took for granted the fact that Branham was a native Ohioan.

“They did the legwork,” Lawrence Branham said. ‘It was major in that aspect because Malaki didn’t really grow up an Ohio State fan. I didn’t grow up an Ohio State fan, so it was important for them to understand that and not try to have this lure of being this hometown kid or this hometown hero because it’s more than that for Malaki.”

Although rankings will change between now and when he gets to campus, Branham currently stands as the top-rated recruit to commit for Holtmann and the highest-rated Ohioan to pledge to Ohio State since Jared Sullinger, the No. 4 national recruit according to the composite rankings, in 2010. Listed at 6-5, 175 pounds, Branham is the top Ohioan in his class, a four-star prospect and the No. 27 recruit in the nation.

Throughout his recruitment, Branham has kept a low profile while weighing his options. In the end, his final decision came down to Alabama, Baylor, Louisville, Missouri, Marquette and Xavier. He announced his plans to commit this past Sunday despite only having taken an official visit to Ohio State and a few other unofficial visits.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Branham’s chances of taking more visits to other schools in the coming months were slim. So they went through the list of schools that had been there from the beginning, his uncle said, and made a decision.

“It just seemed like the right time,” Malaki said. “This pandemic has not been forgiving and with the offers that I held, it was best to make a decision from those schools. I don’t think it would have been wise to wait any longer.”

He will have something in common with his primary trainer, too: Dawson’s two years at Gardner Webb came while Holtmann was the head coach.

“Coach Holtmann kind of ran the offense for me come off of ball screens,” said Dawson, who was a team captain for the Runnin’ Bulldogs. “I can teach him what I know, but it’s all been about Malaki. If he didn’t like coach Holtmann, that would’ve been it.”

He joins a class with two other top-100 Ohioans in Garfield Heights guard Meechie Johnson Jr. (No. 89) and Convoy Crestview forward Kalen Etzler (No. 90), giving the Buckeyes the three highest-rated Ohioans currently in the class. It also pushed the class to the No. 2 national ranking behind just Baylor.

“To me, it’s a big deal because they got a good player,” said Brian Snow, basketball recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “You win by getting guys like Malaki Branham, guys who are going to stay two, three, four years, that grow in your program. That’s what Holtmann’s going to focus on.”

Branham’s commitment drew the attention of his current school’s most famous alumnus: LeBron James tweeted his congratulations to the future Buckeye, adding, “OH-IO” and a nut emoji to the end. Closer to home, it was a big deal for Etzler, who had been recruiting Johnson and Branham to join him since his commitment, and for Johnson, who has split two career games against his future teammate.

“Now that it’s real it almost seems kind of fake,” Etzler said. “I wanted hopefully Meechie and hopefully Malaki could come too but I never would’ve guessed that both of them would be coming. It’s special.”

Said Johnson: “I will do whatever I have to do to win, and when as a point guard, my mentality is like that, that means everybody else will follow. Malaki has the same mentality, so I think we’re going to make it to a Final Four our freshman year and we’re going to win a national championship.”

Wednesday afternoon, with the announcement time all set, Branham and his uncle went out to grab a bite to eat. They headed to the Diamond Deli in downtown Akron, Malaki’s favorite sandwich place, and came back home around 1:30 to brace for the barrage of phone calls, texts and messages that were soon to follow.

It was a celebration, but keeping to form, a somewhat quiet one. And now, with a decision made, the senior-to-be could possibly look forward to the possibility of playing video games without the Ohio State coaching staff calling him to check in.

“They were slightly annoying, in a good way,” he said. “Not annoying to the point where I didn’t want to talk, but sometimes I would be in a heated (NBA)2k matchup and they would call. But I appreciated the work they’ve done and continue to do.”