Ohio (the state of) basketball fans can hear it now: “With the 14th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select... from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School... and The Ohio State University... Shooting guard... Malaki Branham!”
I hope you appreciate the dramatic pauses, because Adam Silver – the commissioner of the NBA – uses them to near-perfection on draft night. While he may or may not make a similar announcement on June 23, there is a very real possibility that the Cavs could be in a position draft another young star with significant ties to Northeast Ohio. And while the late lottery is a little too rich for my blood, I am sure Branham would love to have his name called 14th overall.
LeBron James was the original kid from Akron, at least when it pertains to popular culture. James once famously referred to himself as, “just a kid from Akron.” It has become so popular and so synonymous with the NBA star, that LBJ now uses it as sort of a mantra or tagline in interviews and commercials. Well, Branham is not James. He is not the heir to the throne. And he is also not from Akron — at least not in the truest sense.
Branham was raised in Columbus, but moved to Northeast Ohio to attend high school and play ball at St. Vincent-St. Mary. His ascent to potential lottery pick has been more of a slow burn (compared to that of James), but he will soon find himself in the same league and/or sharing the same court with a player he likely looked up to.
Now that I’ve beaten the Akron thing to death, let’s talk basketball. The Cleveland Cavaliers clearly struck gold when they drafted James in 2003. Nearly two decades later, they could potentially go after another local product in Branham, but the circumstances are much different. The Cavs needed a basketball lifeline in 2003. They were a franchise in peril. Neither is the case in 2022.
The Cavs would have been a playoff team this year if not for terrible injury luck. And I’m not making up far-fetched excuses. They were the 2-seed as late as February! Unfortunately, up and coming guard Collin Sexton played all of 11 games before tearing his meniscus in November. Ricky Rubio, who was a revelation for the squad, tore his ACL after 34 games. Young stars Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen combined to miss nearly 50 games, and by the end of the season, the Cavs were out of the race. They still competed in the play-in tournament, but it wasn’t the same team. They should absolutely bounce back and be a contender next year.
So Branham – if he were to be drafted by the Cavs – would not join a franchise in need of rescuing. He would join a young team on the rise. But does he fit, and is he worth the price tag? I think both questions are debatable.
Starting with fit: yes, I believe Branham could eventually flourish with the current core of the roster. He is only redundant with Caris Levert (also raised in Columbus), and the former Pickerington Central star has just one season remaining on his current contract. Sexton is also in the mix at guard, but he is a restricted free agent coming off a knee injury.
A collection of four guards can easily co-exist, especially in today’s NBA. The Cavs could roll out a three-guard lineup with consistency, or simply stagger minutes. Fit is not the issue. Value is where I have questions. As much as I love Branham, I am not sure he is worth the 14th overall pick (which admittedly puts me in the minority). As a team with playoff aspirations, the Cavs need a player who can contribute right away, and if that player happens to be a solid wing defender, even better.
As currently constructed (with Sexton, whose RFA offers can be matched by the Cavs), Cleveland is strong at the guard position, and strong up front. They are lacking in-between. Isaac Okoro is a talented, defensive-minded wing, but his offensive game is not fully developed. He is also listed primarily as a small forward, despite standing at 6-foot-5 (the same height as Branham). But the Cavs have plenty of core players who are 6-foot-5 and under, and then a separate logjam of 7-footers. Which is why I think the teams needs a Scottie Barnes-type, or a bigger wing/forward with considerable reps under his belt.
Branham could wind up being a Levert clone, albeit much younger and potentially more talented. While there is room for both, drafting Branham would be an investment in the Cavs’ future — not the present. That is why I question the value. Because serious playoff contenders should prioritize immediate impact. Landing a player who can make an impact while simultaneously improving on the fly is an ideal scenario, but I’m not sure Branham is that guy... At least not yet.
If the Ohio State one-and-done star reaches his ceiling, I think DeMar DeRozan and/or Khris Middleton are good comps. Branham doesn’t possess quite the athleticism that a young DeRozan did, and he is not a lights-out shooter in the way Middleton currently is, but he could eventually be a great combination of the two. That being said, I believe it will take time.
I just don’t know if his ability to create shots in the midrange is an elite skill, especially at the NBA level. Maybe Branham is more athletic than I give him credit for, and maybe his outside shooting is sustainable in higher volume, but I actually think that his former OSU teammate E.J. Liddell is better suited to contribute to a contender right away. You can call me nuts, and you wouldn’t be the first (or last) to do so.
I truly hope that Branham becomes a star. I cannot stress that enough. I think he is working with a seriously impressive skillset, and the potential is there. But he’s young, and he found himself playing an alpha role for the Buckeyes because they lacked a strong supporting cast. I don’t believe that he will enjoy the same freedom of movement at the next level. If he is unable to rely on 8-10 open midrange jumpers per game, then he will need to improve his secondary offensive skills, not to mention his defense, in order to stay on the court. Is the totality of his game worth the 14th overall pick? I have no idea, but there is a chance we find out in June.
Critiques aside, Branham becoming a Cavalier would be an all-time moment for Ohio basketball fans like myself. And if it were to happen, I would absolutely line up for a jersey. Because my critiques are rooted in actually, you know, rooting for a player’s development and for that individual to reach their ceiling. It’s all love here. So go Bucks and go Malaki! Cleveland would be lucky to have you.