Ohio State men's basketball power rankings: No. 8 Malaki Branham

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Malaki Branham (22) takes questions from reporters during media day for the Ohio State men's basketball team at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, September 28, 2021.

With the promise of fans in the stands and a return to normalcy, Ohio State will open the 2021-22 season with an exhibition game against Indianapolis on November 1. Eight days later, Akron will come to Value City for the first official game, a visit that canceled last year when COVID-19 delayed the start of the season.

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The Buckeyes will bring a 15-man roster to their sideline this season, one with unprecedented experience that features two players in their sixth years of college basketball and four others in their fifth. Third-year forward E.J. Liddell is the first Ohio State player to return after being named first-team all-Big Ten since Aaron Craft did so in 2013-14, and his decision to return after exploring his NBA draft stock has the Buckeyes opening the season picked to finish fourth in a joint media preseason poll conducted by The Dispatch and The Athletic.

With all of that in mind, The Dispatch is counting down to the start of the season with our annual power rankings. These rankings are an educated guess at which players will have the most significant on-court impact during the course of the entire season and will feature each player on the roster.

The rankings continue today with Malaki Branham

No. 8 – Malaki Branham

Position: Guard

Class: Freshman (first year)

Height/weight: 6 feet 5 / 180 pounds

Jersey number: 22

Major: Sport industry

Background on Malaki Branham

Originally from Columbus, Branham starred for Ridgeview Middle School before moving to Akron to live with his uncle, Lawrence, and attend Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. There, he would put together a prolific career culminating with a second state title while being named Ohio Mr. Basketball as a senior in 2021. He scored 1,501 career points for the Irish and was also a finalist for Mr. Basketball as a junior.

Branham is the top Ohioan in his class, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings, a four-star prospect, the No. 37 player in the nation and the No. 7 combo guard. He’s the highest-rated recruit to sign with the Buckeyes since both DJ Carton was No. 34 in the 2019 class. Branham took an official visit to Ohio State during the weekend of Sept. 7, 2019 alongside Efton Reid while Charles Bediako was on hand for an unofficial visit. During the visit, Branham met with former Buckeyes Clark Kellogg, Jim Jackson, Jared Sullinger and others. He is the highest-rated Ohioan to sign to Ohio State since Jared Sullinger, the No. 4 national recruit according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings, in 2010.

Buckeyes basketball:Dogged approach helped Ohio State land Malaki Branham

“Ohio’s a terrific state, both in AAU and high school, for really good players,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “There are some years where it’s deeper or more talented. It’s cyclical. We understand that. When it has the depth and talent, that’s really important to us and obviously a guy like Malaki was really important.”

As a junior, Branham averaged 20.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. 

Need to know

Branham is known for his smile, although his grandmother, Luzon, said it took him until roughly middle school to grow into it. Before he takes the court, he thinks of a piece of advice she gave him at a young age: “Do U.” Branham’s mother, Matia, ran track and played volleyball in high school and helped her son with his free-throw shooting as a youngster.

Branham will wear No. 22 for Ohio State after being required by coach Chris Holtmann to write a letter to Jim Jackson asking for his blessing. His trainer, Jason Dawson, played for Holtmann while at Gardner Webb. Branham’s final decision came down to Ohio State, Alabama, Baylor, Louisville, Missouri, Marquette and Xavier. When he committed to the Buckeyes, STVM alumnus LeBron James posted a congratulatory message on Twitter.

2020-21 recap

After his junior season was cut short due to COVID-19, Branham made sure to close his prep career with as many accolades as possible. Early in the season, he surpassed the 1,000-point scoring mark on a layup and expressed surprise when the game was stop and the moment announced over the speakers.

When the Irish lost to Hyattsville (Maryland) DeMatha Catholic on January 24, Branham promised coach Dru Joyce II that they would not lose again that season. He followed through on that, leading STVM to the state championship and averaging 21.3 points per game, 5.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals. He was selected to the 2021 Jordan Brand Classic, which was not played due to the pandemic. 

In the state title game, Branham scored 37 points.

While doing in-home schooling under his uncle’s watch, Branham kept his grade-point average above 3.5. During the summer, Branham was a prolific scorer in the Kingdom Summer League and topped the 40-point mark on multiple occasions.

2021-22 outlook

When he enrolled at Ohio State, the expectation was that Branham would face a potentially steeper learning curve than his recruiting ranking might portend because of how he was used in high school. With his size and ability, Branham spent plenty of time on the block, taking advantage of mismatches and using his superior skill to power the Irish to wins.

It left open questions about how quickly he could assimilate to a role strictly on the perimeter, but it didn’t take long for him to answer those in summer workouts. As a result, Branham enters the season with a clear path to significant playing time in a wide-open Ohio State backcourt.

He will have his share of ups and downs, but the opportunity is there.

“I try not to put freshmen on schedules,” Holtmann said at Big Ten media day, six practices into the preseason. “They’re going to run their own race. We’ll have him run his own race. He’s had some really good days and then he’s had some days where he’s struggled but some really good days.”

Third-year forward E.J. Liddell said he’s been guarding Branham at times in order to work on his own defensive athleticism and has come away impressed with the newcomer.

“Malaki’s a bucket-getter,” third-year forward E.J. Liddell said. “Just straight like that, there’s no other way to explain it. He really finds his spots well, gets to what he wants and he’s a bucket-getter.”

Additional reading

Malaki Branham:Ohio’s top 2021 recruit commits to Ohio State

Malaki Branham:Dogged approach helped Ohio State land Ohioan

Malaki Branham:Ohio's Mr. Basketball is ready for Buckeyes career

Malaki Branham:Grandma's advice helps propel Malaki Branham to basketball stardom, Ohio State future

Previous power rankings

No. 9 – Cedric Russell

No. 10 – Joey Brunk

No. 11 – Jimmy Sotos

No. 12 – Gene Brown III

No. 13 – Seth Towns

No. 14 – Harrison Hookfin

No. 15 – Kalen Etzler