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Column: How Ohio State’s bad luck aided in the ascension of Malaki Branham

The Buckeyes dealt with injuries, sickness, and an early departure that nobody saw coming. All of those things contributed to Malaki Branham’s rise from a bench player to a potential first-rounder.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 20 Div I Men’s Championship - Second Round - Ohio State v Villanova Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before I begin, let’s go ahead and rip the band-aid off. Barring a last-second change of heart, Malaki Branham’s Ohio State career is over. In June, he’ll become the first one-and-done of Chris Holtmann’s career and the highest Buckeye taken in the NBA Draft since D’Angelo Russell went second overall in the 2015 NBA Draft.

Branham told ESPN last week that if he receives feedback from teams that he’ll be a first-round pick, he will not be returning to school. And right now, finding a mock draft with Branham going outside of the first round — hell, outside of the top 20 — is about as easy as finding gas for under $3.50/gallon.

In other words: he is gone.

So how did we get here? Absolutely nobody — myself included — thought Branham would be NBA-bound after one season. I didn’t think that when he committed to Ohio State back on July 22, 2020. I didn’t think that when he enrolled at Ohio State last summer, and I still didn’t think it halfway through the season. Malaki was a top-40 player in his class and a four-star recruit. He was always going to be a great player, but a first-round pick at age 19, potentially in the lottery? Absolutely not. Not this quickly, at least.

But Malaki worked his tail off leading into the season and during the first few months. He gradually became more confident, hunting his shot rather than simply being opportunistic when the ball found him. In the very first game after Ohio State’s nearly three-week-long COVID pause, he scored a career-high 35 against Nebraska, literally out of nowhere — and on the road, to boot. From that point on, Branham averaged 17 points per game the rest of the way, winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award and scoring 37 points over two NCAA Tournament games.

And that is where we sit now.

But earlier today, someone asked me a question that really got me thinking: If Ohio State hadn’t dealt with the injuries they did this season, would Branham still be a first-round pick today?

Few — if any — teams missed as many games from key rotation players as the Buckeyes did this past season. Houston and Illinois may have an argument, too. Justice Sueing missed 30 games. Seth Towns missed all 32. Kyle Young missed five games, Zed Key missed three, and Meechie Johnson missed six.

This thrust Branham into roles that Holtmann certainly did not envision his young guard playing so soon. He not only had to become one of their leading scorers, but had to play big minutes all season long. He averaged 30 minutes per game on the season, but the 18-year old played 33 minutes or more in 13 of Ohio State’s final 16 games. If Sueing and (to an extent) Johnson were healthy the entire time, would this have been necessary? I’d argue that it wouldn’t.

I would argue that had Justice Sueing been healthy the entire season, Branham’s minutes would have been reduced to a point where he probably is not scoring 13.7 points per game. With Sueing healthy, there would have been less pressure on Branham to score. Justice Sueing can be relied on for 10-12 points each and every night — which would’ve taken some off of the shoulders of Branham and Liddell.

Once I thought about it a little more, all of the events of last season that Ohio State fans would just consider shit luck directly impacted Branham — and likely helped catapult him to the position he’s in now. Another great example is the COVID-19 pause the team took in December when several players and coaches contracted the virus. Branham, however, avoided it.

While his teammates were resting at home, waiting for the all-clear, Branham was in the gym. According to the Columbus Dispatch’s Adam Jardy, Branham was able to continue to use Ohio State’s facilities during the pause, because he never tested positive throughout the entire fiasco. With no practice, workouts, or games, Branham was in the gym early each morning — sometimes as early as 5 or 6 a.m. — working on his craft. Since he couldn’t work out with anyone on the team, his personal trainer met him at the arena each morning to get shots up. Branham did that for the entirety of the break, while his teammates’ conditioning lagged behind and their shots got rusty sitting at home.

When they were cleared to play against Nebraska on January 2, Branham was anything but rusty. His workouts during that break certainly helped him improve, but he was also one of the only Buckeyes who didn’t look absolutely gassed that first game back. Branham was able to do all of the heavy lifting that night as one of the only players whose workout and practice routine wasn’t completely upended. He scored 35 points over 43 minutes in an overtime victory in Lincoln. From that point on, he just kept on scoring. And scoring. And scoring.

So while it was awful luck that the Buckeyes were forced to stop playing at a time when they seemed to be hitting their stride, the break helped Branham make a leap from a timid freshman who looked a bit overmatched at times to one of the premier players in the Big Ten. Had that COVID pause not happened, would Malaki Branham be sitting here today as a first-round pick?

This one is a little bit more nuanced, and I’d be willing to listen to an argument either way. Some folks may say yes, Branham would have eventually hit his stride with or without that break — all he needed was some time to adjust. Others might say no, that having those few weeks off to collect himself and refocus/prepare for Big Ten play was vital in his transformation into the certified bucket that he is now.

The final domino that without a doubt helped propel Branham into the spot he’s in now was the unexpected departure of Duane Washington Jr. last summer. We heard it all season long, Ohio State’s expected lineup for the 2021-2022 season back in June was:

  • Jamari Wheeler
  • Duane Washington Jr.
  • Justice Sueing
  • E.J. Liddell
  • Zed Key

That meant that Branham would come off the bench as a freshman and have plenty of time to adjust to big-time college basketball. With Washington, Sueing, and Liddell on the floor, there’s no reason to believe that Branham would have come anywhere close to sniffing 13.7 points or 30 minutes per game. Having him come off the bench behind those guys would’ve given the Buckeyes tremendous depth, but Branham wouldn’t have had the opportunity to turn into a star so soon had Washington stayed. The minutes and opportunities just would not have been there during his freshman season.

Some folks may argue this and say that Branham is so talented, having him languish on the bench behind Washington would’ve been a fatal mistake by Chris Holtmann (hypothetically, of course). Or that — given his talent — he would have found a way to force himself into the lineup somehow, with or without Duane there.

Maybe that’s true! We will actually never know! But my counter to that would be to take a look at two sophomore sensations in the Big Ten from this past season — Johnny Davis and Keegan Murray. Both players showed in their sophomore seasons that they were superstars, and just needed the chance to play. But during their freshman years, both of them were blocked by older players who either went undrafted or were drafted much farther back than their understudies will be in a few months.

As a freshman at Iowa two seasons ago, Murray averaged 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game over 18 minutes per contest. He was blocked by Luka Garza, who won the Naismith Award for the best player in college basketball. Garza was then taken with the 52nd pick in the 2021 draft. When the ropes were untied and Murray was let loose this season, he scored 23.5 points per game on 55% shooting over 32 minutes per game. He will be a lottery pick in this summer’s draft.

Davis, on the other hand, was blocked by a combination of Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, and D’Mitrik Trice at Wisconsin. None of those players were drafted, and Davis only averaged 7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game as a freshman. As a sophomore, Davis averaged 19.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2 assists over 34.2 minutes per game — and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year.

The point is, saying, “If they’re talented, they’ll find a way to get on the floor” is not always true in college. Davis was more talented than Davison, Ford, and Trice, but he sat on the bench behind them because he was a freshman — it happens. Murray’s game translated to the NBA much better than Garza’s, and is uber-talented.

Regardless, Murray still sat on the bench until it was his turn. Branham would’ve been blocked by Washington this season in a similar fashion, and at no point would he have surpassed him on the depth chart. If Duane had stayed at Ohio State, I don’t think Branham would be in the position he is in today.

Duane Washington leaving, the Buckeyes getting hit hard with COVID, and the brutal injury bug all hamstrung this Ohio State team’s ceiling this season. Had none of those things happened, I really think that team had the potential to make a deep, deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But at least one person got some benefit out of all of it — Malaki Branham. He’s now on his way to the NBA after less than one full calendar year in Columbus.

So if you weren’t already salty about the difficult hand Ohio State was dealt this year, take solace in the fact that all of that also directly contributed to Branham’s quick ascension from a skinny, timid freshman guard averaging nine points per game back in December to a potential NBA lottery pick.