BASKETBALL

San Antonio rookie Malaki Branham enjoys Ohio NBA homecoming at Cleveland

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

CLEVELAND – The bus waits for no rookie in the NBA, and the clock was ticking for Malaki Branham.

The problem was that the throng of family members, former coaches and general well-wishers still occupying section 110 weren’t quite ready to let the home-state star leave. As someone kept calling out the time as well as the looming scheduled departure – 10:10 p.m. – there was still another selfie to take, a hug to be given or a moment to be shared.

It was a big night for the San Antonio Spurs rookie, an adopted hometown star who had been to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse only as a fan wanting to appreciate the greatness that was LeBron James. That was until he walked through the loading dock, down the hallway and into the visitors’ locker room as an NBA player hoping to help simultaneously snap his team’s losing streak and Cleveland’s winning one.

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That didn't happen. Cleveland won its seventh straight game, sending San Antonio to its 13th consecutive loss with a 117-109 score. It’s that kind of season for both teams, but as the Spurs are committed to playing through their youth Branham has assumed a significant role.

Spurs guard Malaki Branham shoots against Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley on Monday. Branham finished with 18 points.

He was the first starter announced. He finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting. And afterward, he made sure to give his grandmother, Luzon, a hug before finally making his way to the locker room while still clad in his white No. 22 jersey.

“I could hear them all night,” Branham said of his family members in attendance. “Trust me, I was trying to block them all out but it was cool, though. I was just having fun out there. They were just yelling my name. they’re just so happy I’m here.”

Spurs guard Malaki Branham drives to the basket against Cavaliers guard Darius Garland on Monday. Branham finished with 18 points.

In another universe, Branham is a star second-year player at Ohio State. A meteoric rise during the 2022-23 season officially kicked off with a 35-point outing at Nebraska on Jan. 2 and led him all the way to the NBA, becoming the first one-and-done player for the program since D’Angelo Russell in 2015.

San Antonio took him with the 20th pick in the draft, putting him under the tutelage of legendary coach Gregg Popovich. Early returns were mixed, and Branham spent some time in the G League to get some consistent playing time. The stint lasted two games.

“I only played like two games there but it was definitely good, just getting reps, getting game reps in,” he said. “Practice is another thing, but playing the game, playing against other competition gets you ready for nights like these.”

San Antonio's Malaki Branham talks with reporters after scoring 18 points at Cleveland on Monday.

Even as the losses have piled up, Branham has increased his production each month. Through his first seven games in February, Branham is averaging 17.3 points while shooting 46.0% from the floor and 37.8% from 3. His game looks similar to what he displayed as the Big Ten’s freshman of the year, but more physical and more polished. Early Monday night, Branham was guarded by Cleveland’s Darius Garland and took some time to settle into the game.

When he did, the repertoire was there − the smooth mid-range jumper, the ability to muscle his way to the basket, the 3-pointer worked on for hours on end with Columbus-area trainer Jason Dawson. In the eyes of Popovich, it’s been a season of steady growth for Branham.

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“He really is comfortable on the court, more so than most people his age would ever think about being,” Popovich said of Branham, who won’t turn 20 until May. “He’s not in a hurry. He’s not intimated by anything. He’s learned a lot. The people who are guarding him are a lot better than the people who guarded him in college, obviously. He’s understanding the difference in physicality and athleticism and just basketball IQ that he’s going to pick up. He’s been a quick learner.”

Spurs guard Malaki Branham passes against Cavaliers guard Darius Garland on Monday.

It’s why there will be no more G League for Branham and why, even if the team hadn’t been dealing with injuries, Popovich said he would have been playing significant minutes.

“Pop is a defensive-minded coach, so if you want to get on the floor you’re going to have to play some defense,” Branham said. “You’re going to have to stop somebody. I learned that, and once I learned that I got a little leash on the offensive end and just being aggressive and taking the shots I know I can make.”

That was on display Monday, when he joined fellow Buckeye product Keita Bates-Diop in the starting lineup. Together, they had 32 points, with Bates-Diop logging the second-most playing time at 32:50. A native of Columbus who played his high school ball at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, Branham unsurprisingly got the loudest applause among the Spurs starters.

It was a special night for the family, as evidenced by the postgame reception. His alma mater is roughly 40 minutes away and his college home is nearly two hours south, but the ties to Cleveland’s arena are obvious: the only Ohio Mr. Basketball winners to come from St. Vincent-St. Mary are James and Branham, and when he received his award he did so at a ceremony at LeBron James Arena.

As a kid, Branham wanted to be another kid from Akron, as James has famously been dubbed. Now, he’s carving out his own path.

“I came up here when I was playing at St. Vincent-St. Mary, in LeBron’s last season at the Cavs,” Branham said before the game. “I saw him a couple games. I wanted to be where he was at, so tonight is the night.”

It was worth the risk of missing the bus. Someone would’ve given him a ride.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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