With Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham rising, Mike Conley recalls his rapid NBA climb

Jan 2, 2007; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes guard (1) Mike Conley Jr steal the ball the first half against Indiana Hoosiers guard (51) Earl Calloway at Value City Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports © copyright Matthew Emmons
Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The legends about Mike Conley Jr.’s rapid ascension from Ohio State freshman to NBA lottery pick are all true.

When the Buckeyes opened the 2007 NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, Conley had no idea where the next six games would take him. All that was in front of him was a shot at a title, the chance to continue to work at his craft and the excitement that comes with dancing all the way to the national championship game.

By the end, that single-minded focus had propelled him into a projected lottery pick projection that still, 15 years later, caught him by surprise.

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“It was such a blur that once the season ended, the smoke cleared everybody’s like, ‘You know you’re gonna be a probably lottery pick,’ ” Conley said Monday. “I’m like, ‘There’s no way. There’s no way that’s true.’”

Mike Conley and Malaki Branham: Similar Ohio State freshman basketball seasons

Conley was taken fourth overall in the 2007 draft. It was a meteoric rise for someone who entered his first year at Ohio State with NBA potential but far from a guaranteed one-and-done player. And it’s not too dissimilar from the situation current Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham is starting to create with his strong string of second-half performances this season.

Prior to a rough evening at Maryland on Sunday, where he finished with 13 points on as many shots, Branham scored 31 in last Thursday’s win at No. 15 Illinois. It made him the first high-major freshman in the nation to have multiple 30-plus scoring games this season and the first in Ohio State history to score at least 30 in multiple road games. The first time he topped that mark, Branham had 35 points in an overtime win against a Nebraska team the Buckeyes will host Tuesday night at Value City Arena. NBA talent scouts have taken note, and the three-time Big Ten freshman of the week is now appearing on some early mock drafts.

The most important part of the season still lies ahead, and it’s where Conley made his mark. But getting to that point was no accident for Conley, now in his 12th NBA season and third with the Utah Jazz.

“I was so focused on trying to win a national championship and play the best I can to get us there,” he said. “Each game, it seems like it presented moments where I had to be the best me in order for us to win. As the games got closer and closer and moments had to be taken advantage of, it just so happened that I took advantage of each one of them.”

Mike Conley (right) and Malaki Branham

As Ohio State’s season progressed, Conley said he could feel the game slowing down and a growing realization that he didn’t have to wait until the Buckeyes were trailing or in dire need of a spark to start affecting a game. His talent was growing, and that was a direct result of the work put in well before he signed to play for Thad Matta.

“That was something that had been going on years and years before, getting to high school at 6 a.m. and working out and staying after school and working out,” he said. “You’ve got to have all those pieces to your game so when the opportunity does present itself you’re able to go out there and show it.”

Luck played a role, too. For all the promise Conley and his teammates showed during the 2006-07 season, it took a Ron Lewis 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime in what would be a second-round win against Xavier. If not for one of the most famous shots in Ohio State history, Conley’s trip to the NCAA Tournament would have been over during the first weekend.

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Instead, he scored 11 of his 21 points during overtime to lead the Buckeyes past the Musketeers, and they would go on to defeat Tennessee, Memphis and Georgetown before falling to Florida in the title game. In the final five games of the tournament, Conley averaged 18.4 points and 4.8 assists with a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. During two games in the Final Four, Conley scored 35 points and had 12 assists with three turnovers.

Mike Conley didn't want to leave Ohio State early for NBA

He was ready to come back for more, until it became obvious that he needed to go. And when it was, his reaction might surprise you.

“I wasn’t excited,” Conley said. “It’s a weird feeling, because I was not excited to hear that news. I was so invested in Buckeye basketball and winning a championship. When coach set me down, I was talking to him like, ‘I’m coming back for sure. There’s no question. I’m coming back.’

“Some opportunities you only get once in a lifetime and you have to jump and have faith in it. Did that and it’s worked out, but I can’t lie: I wish I could’ve been able to stay in school longer.”

To be clear, Branham has not played himself into NBA lottery consideration. Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann has been clear that while the freshman has grown into one of the team’s primary weapons, there is more to his game that is yet to be unlocked. Like Conley, Branham has been known for his off-the-court work, steady demeanor and willingness to put in the hours necessary to grow his skills.

Whether that could result in becoming Ohio State’s first one-and-done player since D’Angelo Russell is impossible to know right now. Between now and whenever the season comes to a close, Conley’s example provides a path for a player who could likewise continue to climb in the eyes of the NBA.

“He’s definitely shown so much improvement throughout the year as games go on it’s hard for people not to see that he’s gotten some gears he can get to and probably even more,” Conley said. “I know it’s probably a lot for him and thoughts kick in about new possibilities, but as long as he’s continuing to keep his mind set on the team and things he’s doing on the day to day, he’ll take care of what he needs to take care of this season and all that other stuff will take care of itself.”


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