Making the jump from one level to another is never easy. Whether it is high school to college or college to professional, it can take a player some time to adjust to their new situation, no matter how good they are.
The jump was no different for Ohio State freshman guard Malaki Branham, who came in as one of the more anticipated players over the past five recruiting classes for the Buckeyes. Branham came to Ohio State from St. Vincent-St. Mary high school in Akron and was named the 2021 Ohio Mr. Basketball. He was a four-star recruit and the 38th ranked player in the country, the eighth ranked shooting guard in the country, and the top player in the state of Ohio.
Branham averaged 21.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game as a senior and was named the Division II Player of the Year, and scored 37 points in the state final win over Columbus St. Francis DeSales. As the state championship game indicated, Branham had a knack for stepping up in the big moments, as all star players do. Branham finished his high school career as a two-time Division II Ohio state champion with championships in 2018 and 2021 and with 1,501 career points.
Most recruiters and people who evaluate high school basketball had nothing but good things to say about Branham.
“Good size for a shooting guard with secondary ball handler capabilities,” 247 Sport’s Director of basketball scouting Jerry Meyer said. “Solid athlete. Specialty is getting to the rim with his slashing style. Improving outside shooter who can keep the defense honest. Quality ball handler and who can pass on the move. Versatile defender who rebounds at a high level.”
Meyer also compared him to Dwayne Bacon from Florida State and who currently plays for the Orlando Magic and has carved out a role for himself in the pros.
He committed to Ohio State and most people figured that he would step in and become a weapon on offense immediately. Well, they were right and Branham came off the bench and played 24 minutes in his first ever collegiate game against Akron. The freshman guard recorded 7 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 1 block. Branham also had the pass of the season thus far, as he found Zed Key in the paint with one second left in the game down by a point, which led to a buzzer-beater by Key to avoid a first game upset for the Buckeyes.
Plays like that showed his maturity and high-level thinking right away and led to him starting for the Buckeyes soon after. However, it wasn’t easy sledding for the freshman to finish up the 2021 calendar year. In the 10 games for the Buckeyes before the calendar turned to 2022, Branham only had one game in double digits and his career high was 11 points. In their final game before the three-week COVID break, Branham finished with no points and four turnovers in 14 minutes against Wisconsin.
But everything changed when the Buckeyes traveled to Lincoln, Neb. In a game where a lot of stuff went wrong, Branham was right. The freshman scored an (obviously) career high 35 points on 13-for-19 shooting from the field and 6-for-10 from three-point range.
Branham broke all kinds of freshman records in the game, including becoming the first OSU freshman to score 30 points since D’Angelo Russell in January 2015. He hit the most threes in a game by an Ohio State player since Justin Ahrens in 2019. And most of all, he just simply looked comfortable, as acting head coach Jake Diebler pointed out after their win over Northwestern.
Diebler on Malaki Branham: "I think the game is slowing down a bit for him and he's playing with more force than he was when the year started."— Connor Lemons (@lemons_connor) January 10, 2022
After a game like that, people always wonder what the encore will be. For Branham, he was the main scorer again in their loss to Indiana with 13 points and then he recorded 24 against Northwestern. In the three games since the Buckeyes COVID-19 pause, Branham is averaging 24 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 58% from the field and 50% from three-point range. He has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week two weeks in row, which is pretty impressive considering the incredibly talented freshmen in the conference.
His shooting splits have been impressive all season, as he is shooting 46% from the field, 42% from three-point range and 92% from the free throw line. Branham has always been talented and these games are not a fluke, they are a sign of things to come. Give the coaching staff credit and the Buckeye players as well, as they didn't bench Branham and found ways to keep his confidence up when things weren’t going great. The only way to beat a slump is to play out of it.
For Malaki Branham, one thing is for sure. There are plenty more incredible performances to come.