In just over a month from now, both Malaki Branham and E.J. Liddell will likely have (one of) their wildest dream(s) come true. Each is expected to go in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft, which takes place June 23 in Brooklyn. But first, they will show off their skills and compete against fellow draft candidates in front of NBA talent evaluators in Chicago. The NBA Draft Combine – which is not nearly the spectacle that the NFL Draft Combine has become – is the best opportunity for these former Buckeyes to stand out and potentially improve their draft stock.
There have been years in which certain top players opted out of this event, or chose to skip some of the drills and/or scrimmages, but that is not expected to be the case in 2022. Branham and Liddell will be competing and measured (literally) against all of the best prospects in this class. Jonathan Wasserman is the lead NBA Draft writer for Bleacher Report, and all 50 players on his big board are included in this year’s list of participants. The competition will be stiff, but playing in the Big Ten should have been adequate preparation for Branham and Liddell.
That is because 12 players from the Big Ten (including Branham and Liddell) were invited to participate in this nearly week-long job interview. Jaden Ivey and Keegan Murray are expected to hear their names called in the first handful of picks, but the conference as a whole could have up to six or seven players taken in the first round! Aside from former conference foes, Branham and Liddell will also be going up against top players such as Paolo Banchero (Duke), Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga), and Jabari Smith (Auburn). Once thought to be a weaker draft class, the 2022 group has proven to be very deep.
So what do Branham and Liddell need to do in Chicago in order to establish themselves as surefire first-rounders? Or possibly even sneak into the lottery? I think the answer varies for each player. Obviously their respective games have not changed overnight, and what people see in Chicago will be reminiscent of what they saw during the college basketball season, but I believe that it is important for each player to show some progress and potential to reach an even higher ceiling. All players will receive valuable feedback from this event, but it’s not like there is time to reinvent oneself before the draft. Individual visits and workouts will be arranged with interested teams, but generally speaking, the combine is where money is made... or lost.
Branham’s name shot up draft boards thanks to a torrid stretch in February and March. Ohio State’s homegrown star quickly developed into a go-to scorer and offensive weapon capable of getting high-quality looks for himself. His scoring arsenal is complete, but can he get others involved? And what other elements does he have to his game? I am a huge Branham fan, but I think it’s fair to ask whether he can become an occasional facilitator and consistent two-way player. I have serious questions about his defense, but my concerns don’t matter. He can put any doubts to rest with a solid showing at next week’s combine.
If Branham tests well, I think he will easily stick inside the top-20 based on potential alone. In that case, it would take a series of terrible drills and/or scrimmages to push him to the end of the first round. However, if he can score and defend in a game-setting against the likes of A.J. Griffin and Ben Mathurin, then I believe he will throw his name into the hat for lottery consideration — if he has not done so already. But Branham has the greater variance between floor and ceiling, in my opinion, than Liddell, who has actually been through this process before and whose name has been on the radar of NBA folks for at least a full year.
With Liddell, I think teams know exactly what they’re getting. He has already been picked apart and had his perceived weaknesses called out. He is an undersized power forward, who may or may not be able to defend multiple positions and will occasionally be swallowed up by elite defenders. But Liddell will also work tirelessly to improve his game, get contested buckets in the midrange, has expanded his range, and rebounds and block shots better than many players his size. His estimated ceiling likely keeps him out of the lottery conversation, but his production and consistency should warrant consideration.
Watched Ohio State star EJ Liddell workout in Santa Barbara this week. In great shape, shooting it comfortably from beyond the arc. One of the most productive players in the draft with game film that speaks for itself. Averaged 19.4 PTS, 7.9 REBS, 2.4— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 11, 2022
AST + 2.5 BLK in 33.1 MIN. pic.twitter.com/VT6eAxFhwD
Liddell is the kind of third or fourth-year player who NBA teams sleep on, only to eventually kick themselves for instead going with a 19-year old dunker who shot 25 percent from beyond the arc in his one college season. I could see an NBA role similar to that of Brandon Clarke, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies. He and Liddell don’t play the same style – Clarke is the superior athlete – but the former Gonzaga Bulldog averaged 17 points and 9 boards during his final collegiate season, before going No. 21 overall in the 2019 draft. His age (22) and size (6-foot-8) were held against him, but he has continued to rebound well and block shots at the next level, becoming a hell of a role player.
Liddell, who is 6-foot-7 and now 21 years of age, just wrapped up a 19 and 8 season, while also averaging 2.6 blocks. He won’t jump out of the gym or like Clarke, but the Ohio State All-American is further along offensively. I don’t see any reason why he can’t contribute 12 and 6 right away, while possessing the ability to go off for 25.
The NBA Draft Combine will be important for both former Buckeyes. Branham is trending toward the lottery, but will likely want to display his secondary skills and show that he can play solid defense against other top prospects. Liddell is out to prove that, even after three productive years in college, he still has greater potential to tap into... and that perhaps he belongs in the lottery himself. I will be following the action in Chicago next week, and I can’t wait to see where they end up in a month. Go Bucks!