2022 NBA draft: Ohio State's Malaki Branham says goodbye to Buckeyes

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The advice from grandma has served Malaki Branham well.

As Branham was a rising prep star at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, his grandmother, Luzon, would remind him of his inner potential with a simple phrase.

“Do U,” she would tell him.

For years, he has. It led him to championships at the high school level, accolades at Ohio State and, now, a full commitment to making his dreams come true. At a press conference Wednesday afternoon inside the Buckeyes’ practice gym, Branham officially announced that he will be headed to the NBA and not returning for his sophomore season.

"Being a first-round pick, that was the biggest feedback I needed," Branham said.

Branham is the first one-and-done player of the Chris Holtmann era and Ohio State’s first since D’Angelo Russell in 2015. He is the second player from last year’s team to declare for the draft, joining third-year forward E.J. Liddell.

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In his lone season with the Buckeyes, Branham averaged 13.4 points per game but excelled in the new year. After averaging 6.3 points through the first 10 games of the season, Branham averaged 17.0 during the final 22. In 29.6 minutes per game, Branham shot 41.6% from 3-point range, 49.8% from the floor and 83.3% from the free-throw line.

Holtmann said the NBA feedback they've received has Branham well inside the first round, and although the guard declined to specify just how high he might be picked, Branham's expectation is to keep climbing as he continues to meet with NBA teams and go through workouts.

"Having that feedback right there and being a first-rounder, and I know I’m going to go up once I start these workouts," he said. "Just keep working. That’s really the thing for me. I let my game do the talking."

It wasn't a decision without emotion, though. Branham described it as win-win and said he gave thought to the potential benefits of a sophomore season at Ohio State.

"It definitely wasn’t just, ‘I’m going to the League,’ " he said. "I felt like it wasn’t a win-lose situation. It was win-win, if I go to the League or if I came back, but me wanting to pursue my dreams, go to the NBA, I feel like this was the best opportunity for me."

Branham's mother, Matia, grandmother Luzon, and uncle Lawrence were all in attendance to watch the announcement. So were Ohio State center Zed Key, entering his third season, and multiple members of the coaching and support staff. 

Branham became Ohio State’s first Big Ten freshman of the year since Russell and was also named third-team all-league.

"This is obviously a big day for Malaki and his family," Holtmann said. "It’ll be an even bigger day on June 23. It’s a great day for he, his family, it’s a great day for our program. It’ll be a great day for Ohio State when he hears his name called."

A four-star player from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, Branham grew up in Columbus before moving for high school but did not give Ohio State any home-school consideration in his recruitment. Ultimately, he committed to the Buckeyes during the summer before his senior year after an unusually quiet public recruitment for a high-profile player. In the end, Branham said the Buckeyes recruited him hard, “to the point of being annoying” he said on signing day.

That season, he helped lead the Irish to a state championship, their second during Branham's three years that featured postseason play (the 2020 tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic). At the end of the season, Branham was named Ohio Mr. Basketball to close a prep career that saw him finish with 1,501 points (fourth-most in school history) and become the fourth player from the school to be named the state’s top player.

Branham became the 10th Ohio Mr. Basketball winner to sign with the Buckeyes and the first since Westerville South’s Kaleb Wesson in 2017. He joined the program during the summer and quickly established himself in the weekly Kingdom Summer League held at Ohio Dominican University, twice putting up at least 40 points.

He arrived at those games wearing official team gear with the No. 22 – Branham’s high school number, but also one hanging from the rafters at Value City Arena. He would eventually get permission from Jim Jackson, whose name hangs with the jersey, to bring the number out of retirement.

"I love watching him play," Jackson told The Dispatch before working as an analyst for Ohio State's Feb. 19 home game against Iowa. "He has a chance to be special."

Branham came off the bench in the season opener but, with the Buckeyes trailing Akron by a point with 3.2 seconds to play, they put the ball in the freshman’s hands and charged him with making a decision. He spotted teammate Zed Key down low, fed him the ball and earned the assist on the game-winning basket with less than a second to play.

“We’ve seen glimpses of that with Malaki,” Holtmann said after the game. “We’ve talked as a coaching staff that the ball may need to be in his hands late.”

That would be proven accurate as the season progressed. With expected key contributor Justice Sueing sidelined for all but the first two games of the season, the Buckeyes leaned heavily on first-team all-Big Ten forward E.J. Liddell while looking for someone to help him shoulder the offensive load. Branham was scoreless in a home win against No. 17 Wisconsin on Dec. 11, which would be the last game for 22 days as the program was shut down due to a COVID outbreak.

They returned with a road game at Nebraska on Jan. 2, and from there Branham’s star would continue to ascend. In an 87-79 overtime win, Branham broke out with a 35-point performance, the most ever for an Ohio State freshman in a Big Ten game. He would again top 30 when he scored 31 in a Feb. 24 road win against Illinois and scored in double figures in Ohio State’s final 11 games, leading to being named the league’s top freshman.

In the final game of the season, Branham led the Buckeyes with 23 points in a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Villanova. Shortly afterward, Branham entered his name into the NBA draft process while retaining his eligibility. He told ESPN that he would remain in the draft if he was assured of being a first-round pick, and since the season ended he has been projected as a potential late-lottery selection.

Branham's meteoric rise evoked memories of Mike Conley, who went from an NBA afterthought at the start of the season to a one-and-done lottery pick in 2007. 

“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," Conley told The Dispatch in late February.

The Buckeyes have 12 players projected on their roster for the 2022-23 season and continue to search for one more post player via the transfer portal.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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