Last Friday afternoon, Ohio State freshman guard Malaki Branham announced he will be entering the 2022 NBA Draft, but the Big Ten Freshman of the Year didn’t close the door on returning to Columbus for another season. In reality, by saying that he will be staying in the draft if he will be a first-round pick since pretty much every mock draft out there has Branham being selected in the first round of this year’s draft. Branham will likely be the seventh Ohio State player to play one season for the Buckeyes and declare for the NBA Draft.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with heading to the NBA after one year in college, especially when a player is projected to be taken in the first round, where contracts are guaranteed for two years, and teams hold options on the third and fourth years of the contract. Even if he is taken with the last pick in the first round, Branham could be looking at his first NBA contract being worth $10 million dollars if the team that drafts him picks up the third and fourth-year options.
Just by watching Branham from the beginning of the season to the end, Ohio State fans saw tremendous growth in the guard’s game. After his first few games in the scarlet and gray, nobody was thinking about Branham possibly jumping to the NBA after this season, as he didn’t even reach double figures in the scoring column in a game until the eighth game of his college career in early December against Penn State.
Branham’s real breakout performance came at the beginning of 2022 when he hit six three-pointers and scored 35 points in Ohio State’s 87-79 overtime win over Nebraska. In late February, Branham again eclipsed the 30-point mark on the road, scoring 31 in a 86-83 win at Illinois. Branham’s draft stock really caught fire towards the end of the season, as he scored at least 10 points in each of his last 11 games. After a start to the season that saw him averaging just 6.1 points per game after his first seven games, Branham finished the year averaging 13.7 points per game.
The good news for Branham is that all of Ohio State’s six previous one-and-done players were first-round picks. The bad news for Branham is that there have been mixed results among those players. While there are two one-year Buckeyes that have gone on to become all-stars, three others haven’t really moved the needle in the NBA. The most talented of the group had Hall of Fame projections coming out of college, but could never stay healthy.
Now feels like a good time to take a trip down memory lane and remember those Buckeye hoopers we only saw in Columbus for one season before they took their talents to the professional level.
Even before he played his first game at Ohio State, it felt like Greg Oden was going to be basketball’s next big star. The seven-footer became just the second men’s basketball player to win back-to-back Gatorade High School Player of the Year honors, with LeBron James becoming the first to accomplish the feat just a couple of years prior.
There was a slight hiccup to start Oden’s career at Ohio State, as he was forced to sit out the first month of the 2006-07 season due to wrist surgery. Despite missing some early games, Oden still was named First Team All-Big Ten and Second Team All-American after finishing his only season in college with 15.7 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game, and 3.3 blocks per game. Oden was also named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Even though Kevin Durant was a part of the 2007 NBA Draft class, it was obvious once the Portland Trailblazers won the draft lottery that Oden would be their selection with the top pick. Unfortunately for Portland, Oden wouldn’t play his first game for Portland until 2008 after he needed microfracture surgery in September 2007.
When Oden did finally get on the court in the NBA, it was obvious that he was going to be a force in the paint, he just needed time on the floor to get more comfortable at the professional level and expand his game. The problem was he could never stay healthy, fracturing his left patella in a game in 2009, followed by needing two more microfracture surgeries.
Even though Oden kept trying to recover from the multiple surgeries and get back on the court, he was nowhere near the same player in his return to the court with Miami during the 2013-14 season. During his NBA career, Oden played in just 105 games, averaging 8.0 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Unlike his high school and college teammate, Mike Conley has been able to stay healthy for the majority of his professional career. Even though Conley was a highly rated recruit coming out of high school, many were thinking he would be at Ohio State for more than a year. Conley really got NBA scouts talking with an outstanding NCAA Tournament in 2007, running the show for a Buckeye squad that made the title game.
Conley was selected with the fourth pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. While his NBA career started slowly, there was visible growth in Conley’s game with each season. The first 12 seasons of Conley’s career were spent with the Grizzlies, with his last season in Memphis being his best statistically, averaging 21.1 points per game.
The former Buckeye was traded to Utah following the 2018-19 season, and last year became an NBA All-Star for the first time. As long as he stays healthy, Conley will play in his 1,000th game next season, and has career earnings of over $200 million dollars.
The third freshman on the 2006-07 Ohio State squad to declare for the 2007 NBA Draft was Dayton’s Daequan Cook. In a way, Cook’s Ohio State career was the opposite of Branham’s freshman season. Cook burst onto the scene with 22 points and nine rebounds in his first game at Ohio State, and he followed that performance up by scoring at least 14 points in each of his first seven games. By the time the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament were held, Cook had trouble staying on the court, registering just one game of over 20 minutes in his last nine games as a Buckeye.
Even though he had a quiet finish to the season, Cook was confident enough with his draft stock to make the leap to the NBA, where he was taken by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 21st pick. The 76ers traded the draft rights to Cook to the Miami Heat for Jason Smith. Cook was solid in his first two seasons in the NBA, averaging 8.8 points in 24 minutes per game in his rookie year, followed by a career-high 9.1 points per game the following year.
The biggest moment of Cook’s NBA career came in 2009 when he won the Three-Point Competition. After three seasons in Miami, Cook was traded to Oklahoma City, where he ended up playing against his old team in the 2012 NBA Finals. During that offseason, Cook was part of the trade that sent James Harden to Houston, but Cook only played in 16 games with the Rockets before being released during the season. Chicago would sign Cook for the remainder of the season, which was his final one in the NBA. Cook finished his NBA career playing in a total of 328 games and averaging 6.4 points per contest.
With Oden, Conley, and Cook all declaring for the 2007 NBA Draft, the cupboard was pretty bare in Columbus during the 2007-08 season. Aside from senior Jamar Butler, the only other Ohio State player to average double figures in scoring was Kosta Koufos, who finished the year with 14.4 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game and was named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman Team.
Ohio State missed out on the 2008 NCAA Tournament, but they still saw plenty of action in March, winning the NIT with Koufos being named Most Valuable Player. The extra games gave NBA scouts more time to look at the big man from Canton, which led to Koufos declaring for the 2008 NBA Draft. Koufos was selected by the Utah Jazz with the 23rd pick.
Even though he didn’t put up any crazy stats, Koufos had a solid career in the NBA, playing in 686 games with five teams. While his averages of 5.7 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game aren’t going to lead to an induction into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, Koufos did rack up $47.5 million dollars in career earnings, so it’s hard to argue that Koufos wasn’t a success.
It would have been fun to see what would have happened with the 2008-09 team had Kosta Koufos returned for his sophomore season. The Buckeyes had Canal Winchester product B.J. Mullens coming in as a freshman, which would have given Ohio State two seven-footers. While Mullens was one of the nation’s top recruits coming out of high school, his time with the Buckeyes was so short he didn’t really get time to live up to the hype. Mullens did impress enough to earn Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year and All-Freshman Team honors, finishing the season with 8.8 points per game and 4.7 rebounds per game.
The move by Mullens to declare for the 2009 NBA Draft was a little bit more puzzling than the other four Buckeyes to do the same in the prior two seasons. While it likely would have benefited Mullens to stick around college for another year and get plenty of playing time, it’s hard to pass up playing in the NBA if you are told you’ll be a first-round pick. The Dallas Mavericks took Mullens with the 24th pick before trading his draft rights to Oklahoma City later that night.
Even though he was with the Thunder for two seasons, Mullens barely saw the court in Oklahoma City, playing just 139 minutes before being traded to Charlotte in 2011. A change of scenery did help Mullens a bit, as he averaged 9.3 points per game during the 2011-12 season, followed by 10.6 points per game in 2012-13. Despite his production, Mullens and Charlotte couldn’t agree on a contract. Mullens would eventually sign with the Clippers, but he made no impact in 27 games in Los Angeles before being traded to Philadelphia, where he would play 18 more games, with those being his last in the NBA.
There wasn’t much that went right in Thad Matta’s last few seasons at Ohio State. The one bright spot for Matta and Buckeye Nation was the one season we got to watch D’Angelo Russell operate. It didn’t take Russell long to make an impact in the scarlet and gray, as he scored 32 points in his third collegiate game. Even though the 2014-15 squad had future NBA players Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop on the roster, the Buckeyes wouldn’t have sniffed the NCAA Tournament had it not been for Russell.
In his only season in college, Russell averaged 19.3 points per game, 5.7 rebounds per game, and 5.0 assists per game. Not only was Russell named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, he was also First Team All-Big Ten. Russell was taken with the second pick of the 2015 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. At the time the future was bright for Russell since he would get to play alongside basketball legend Kobe Bryant. Even though Russell was solid with the Lakers, the fit just wasn’t right, leading to Los Angeles trading Russell to Brooklyn after the 2016-17 season.
With a fresh start in Brooklyn, Russell finally began to play up to his potential, not only earning a spot in the All-Star Game in 2018, but also leading the Nets to the playoffs. Despite his play, the Nets had bigger plans, sending Russell to Golden State as part of the Kevin Durant sign-and-trade deal. Russell’s time with the Warriors was short, playing in 33 games before being moved to Minnesota in a trade. Russell is now in his third season with the Timberwolves, and is a big reason why Minnesota is currently seventh in the Western Conference.