While the Ohio State men’s basketball roster is still in flux due to the NBA Draft process, one thing that is set in stone are the two freshmen that will join the team this fall: Malaki Branham and Kalen Etzler. Etzler, a 6-foot-8 power forward from Convoy, Ohio, will come off the bench behind E.J. Liddell (if he returns), Justice Sueing, Seth Towns, and others. He’s the 150th-ranked player in the 2021 class, No. 4 in the state of Ohio, and the nephew of former Ohio State guard Doug Etzler.
Branham, on the other hand, could come off the bench or end up starting right from the jump if Duane Washington Jr. chooses to forgo his final two seasons of eligibility and stay in the NBA Draft. Washington is unlikely to be drafted in this year’s NBA Draft, but barring an eye-opening, breakout season, he probably won’t get drafted next season, either. With his future up in the air, so too is Branham’s role at Ohio State this season.
Branham graduated from St. Vincent- St. Mary High School in Akron, the alma mater of another very noteworthy Ohioan (nope, not John Legend), LeBron James. He’s the No. 34 recruit in the class of 2021, which is tied with D.J. Carton (class of 2019) for Holtmann’s highest-rated recruit since arriving in Columbus. At 6-foor-4 and close to 180 pounds, Branham is already big and strong enough to tangle with guards in the Big Ten, and that’s before he arrives on campus and gets in the weight room with strength coach Quadrian Banks and the rest of Ohio State’s coaching staff.
Branham’s role this season will likely change as the year progresses. If he begins the season as a starter, it’s unlikely that sticks from start to finish. If he comes off the bench in November, it’s likely that he’ll draw a few starts at some point. Today we’ll break down why Branham will (or won’t) start for the Buckeyes when things tips off in November:
Why he’s going to start:
Only one freshman has started the first game of the season since Chris Holtmann took over in 2017, which was Luther Muhammad in in 2018. Muhammad went on to play two seasons for the Buckeyes before transferring at the conclusion of the 2019-2020 season. Kaleb Wesson, one of the best big men Ohio State has had over the past decade, did not start right away as a freshman. D.J. Carton — a four-star like Branham — did not start right away as a freshman. Wesson is now playing for the Golden State Warriors G-League team, and Carton announced he was entering the NBA draft a few weeks ago. While both were very good players at Ohio State, neither was able to break into the starting lineup right away.
Holtmann has shown that he’s willing to give his more experienced players a longer leash than the youngers ones much of the time, but also has not been afraid to mix up the rotation when Ohio State falls into a funk. As a freshman, Carton did not start until mid-season despite showing time and time again that he was the most athletically gifted player on the floor. Should he have been starting the whole time? Well, that’s another conversation for another day.
Branham may just be good enough to challenge the status quo this season. The 2021 Ohio Mr. Basketball award winner averaged 21.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.8 steals per game en route to his second state championship with SVSM this season. At 6-foot-4 and 175-180 pounds, he has a solid base that can hang in the Big Ten, and will add more muscle after his first full collegiate offseason with the team this summer.
If Washington Jr. does in fact leave Ohio State, there will be an opening next to Jamari Wheeler in the starting lineup. Would Holtmann go with Branham or Meechie Johnson, who looked a bit out of his element last season at times (at just 17 years old it’s understandable), but has experience Branham doesn’t have yet? Branham seems to have a higher upside than Johnson, so my bet would be on Branham in that situation.
Or if Washington stays, could Holtmann potentially go with a three-guard lineup alongside Liddell and Young? I really doubt it. Justice Sueing had a very productive first year as a Buckeye (10.7 PTS, 5.5 REB), and I don’t see Holtmann benching him nor Kyle Young next season in favor of Branham. But the point still stands: Branham has the highest ceiling of any Ohio State guard in quite a few years . If he’s as good as advertised, he’ll be on the floor quite a bit.
Why he won’t start:
Simply put: there might not be room.
Whether you think Branham is better than Jamari Wheeler or not (he will be, but we don’t know that yet), Wheeler did not use his final year of eligibility to play somewhere where he wouldn’t be a starter. Wheeler is Ohio State’s starting point guard, you can write it in permanent marker. If Duane Washington Jr. returns for one more season, he (obviously) will be a starter as well. He’s earned that nod after improving significantly between his freshman-sophomore years and again from sophomore-junior year. If he returns, he’s going to have a great season and play a lot of minutes. You can sharpie him in, too.
Kyle Young has a bit of an injury history and most recently went through two concussions, but even with that, there’s essentially zero chance Holtmann has Young come of the bench unless it is due to health concerns. He isn’t Ohio State’s best player, but he’s their most important player, and the team is much better with him on the floor. And as I noted in the previous section, Sueing also played well enough last season that I don’t see him being relegated to the bench after starting last season. Both Young and Seuing can be etched into the starting lineup today, with no hesitation at all.
And that leaves one spot left, assumedly for E.J. Liddell if he returns for one more season. It’s highly unlikely that he gets drafted this year, so most folks are assuming he’ll don the scarlet and gray for one more season. If he comes back, there’s your starting lineup. Wheeler, Washington, Liddell, Sueing, and Young. Take it to the bank, bet your life savings on it, etc. Branham will not be a starter for the Buckeyes come November if the chips fall the way I’ve laid it out here.
Malaki Branham could end up being a four-year, all-conference type of player under Holtmann. He may also be his first “one and done” player, or fall anywhere in between. But if the main core of last year’s team is returning, Branham may have to wait just a bit longer before he can really take center stage.