Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: Best NBA landing spots for Liddell/Branham.
The 2022 NBA Draft is less than a month away, and as of this glorious Memorial Day weekend, it seems like a foregone conclusion that both Malaki Branham and E.J. Liddell are poised to go in the first round. Branham, who is viewed by most as the higher upside player, has steadily risen up draft boards and could potentially hear his name called as a lottery pick. Liddell, the older but more productive prospect, is often projected in the 20-30 range. I am clearly not an NBA talent evaluator, but Gene, I would argue that the gap between these former Buckeyes should be much smaller.
I know that I am in the minority here, but I am not yet sold on the future NBA greatness of Branham. I love the guy – and yes, he was a walking bucket at times for Chris Holtmann – but what is his elite skill? Midrange pull-ups? I think he can eventually grow into a dangerous scorer at the next level, but it might take some time (if he gets there at all). And if he “only” ends up being a poor man’s DeMar DeRozan, you’re looking at a rotational piece off the bench. Teams in the late lottery should be taking big swings, and I’m just not sure Branham has home run potential. But spoiler alert: I think my pick/projection gives him a chance to reach his apex.
Liddell, on the other hand, is more of a finished project. He feels like a safe pick to me — and that’s not a bad thing! He might have a lower ceiling than his former OSU teammate, but I would argue that he has a higher floor. With Liddell, you know he can score, rebound, and block shots. He has a variety of weapons in his arsenal, even if he lacks NBA size and/or athleticism. I’m not saying that he is a sure thing, because none of these guys are, but I truly believe that Liddell is a plug-and-play option, and I would be very surprised if he turns out to be a bust.
So what is my larger point? I’m not sure. I think I just wanted to hype up Liddell, because he is/was one of my most favorite recent Buckeyes. I will root like hell for Branham too, but I really feel like both of these guys are mid-first rounders. Which leads to the topic at hand. I have been on my soapbox long enough, so let’s get do it.
Malaki Branham — 11th overall to the New York Knicks
Don’t crush me for this, Gene! I have not softened my stance. I am not back-tracking. I am still not sold on Branham as a future star, but I believe that if he is going to develop into an NBA stud (and I hope that he does), he needs to be put in the right situation. To me, that situation is one where Branham might not be expected to produce right away, but the opportunity to do so does exist — a mid-tier, mediocre team absent of stars. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the New York Knicks!
The Knicks ended a seven-year playoff drought in 2020-21, but regressed this season, earning themselves another lottery pick. They have a mixture of intriguing young players and solid veterans, but there is no superstar on the team’s roster. The franchise seems to be stuck in the mud until they either land a big-name free agent or lean into a rebuild buoyed by top picks. Branham gives them neither, but he could occupy some sort of middle ground: a potentially dynamic scorer, albeit one who lacks the unicorn upside of a Chet Holmgren.
In New York, Branham could be brought along slowly. And that is not far-fetched, given Tom Thibodeau’s general aversion to playing young guys. Thibodeau demands effort and execution on the defensive end, so by default, Branham would be required to improve upon one of his current weaknesses. If and when he becomes a solid defender, the one-and-done Buckeye could then fill out the rest of his offensive game. Marry the two together, and now you’re talking about an effective NBA player.
As far as roster fit goes, there is no other wing currently on the Knicks’ roster that would prevent Branham from seeing the floor. The one exception is R.J. Barrett, but he is also a secondary ball-handler, which is just not Branham’s game. At the same time, there are multiple players who can and would hold down the fort until he is ready. Guys like Evan Fournier and Alec Burks are proven vets, meaning that Thibodeau and the Knicks would not feel pressure to force Branham into the lineup. This situation would foster gradual development, which is really all you can ask for as a rookie selected outside of the top five picks.
To me, New York seems like an ideal destination for Branham. The Knicks are not performing a full-on tank job, so they would not throw him out on the court to take his lumps. And they are just good enough that he would absolutely have to earn playing time. If and when he did, role players could be cast aside for the purpose of letting Branham and Barrett potentially carry the team into a new era. Big Apple Branham has a nice ring to it.
E.J. Liddell — 18th overall to the Chicago Bulls
I’ll keep this short and sweet: Liddell gets to go home. The two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball winner grew up just a few hours from Chicago, and is the type of player that a contending Bulls team should target. He is unselfish, works his tail off, can do a little bit of everything on the floor, and comes with three years of collegiate experience which should have prepared him for immediate playing time at the next level.
The Bulls are not a lottery team, but they are also not the perennial championship contender that can afford to invest in a long-term project. They need immediate contributors. Liddell could be just that, and he just so happens to fill a role for Chicago. Because with Zach Lavine, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and others already in the fold, this franchise does not need guard or wing help. They need more Patrick Williams types, and Liddell is a similar player.
He can defend multiple positions, rebound, and make smart passes, just like Williams. But unlike the fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft, Liddell provides an offensive spark. He can bang down low, pick you apart from midrange, or step out beyond the arc. Is he going to score 20 per night, like he did at Ohio State? Maybe, maybe not. But with Lavine and DeRozan going for 50 combined, the Bulls wouldn’t need him to light it up.
Be a professional, and play your role. That’s what playoff teams want and expect from late first-round picks. Liddell can do those things, and this would give him an opportunity to do so in his home state. It doesn't get much better than a homecoming story, Gene.
I’ll be honest, I am not the worlds biggest NBA guy. I probably watched a handful of games all season, and even less so during the current playoffs. I am much more interested in the college game, and while I do love seeing the biggest names at the collegiate level make a name for themselves in the pros, the league as a whole just doesn’t do it for me. You can blame the Knicks being a terrible franchise for my entire existence for that.
That being said, I was incredibly tempted to just make Josh’s section its own article. He put in a lot of work in scouting Ohio State’s two NBA prospects and their potential landing spots, and certainly follows the league much more closely than I do. However, in the spirit of debate, I will still take my own stab at predicting the best situations for the pair of former Buckeyes — albeit in much less in-depth fashion than my counterpart.
Malaki Branham — 14th overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers
Josh left this one open for me, so I will gladly take the freebie in sending Branham to the hometown team. In fact, not too long ago Josh wrote up a whole piece on the potential for Branham to wind up with the Cavaliers, and so clearly he did a pretty good job in convincing me!
We all know the backstory that would potentially come with this selection. A first-round selection coming out of St. Vincent-St. Mary to join the Cavaliers — sound familiar? No, Malaki Branham is not quite the second coming of Lebron James, but he is a really good player in his own right and one that could potentially help Cleveland in the near future given their current structure. Like Josh, I think Branham could use some time to further develop his game in the pros, and I think the Cavs would afford him the opportunity to do just that.
Sure, the Cavaliers are a bit heavy at guard right now, but I think Branham would give them a scoring boost at the wing or two-spot that the team could certainly use, and he would be a seemingly good pairing with guys like Caris LeVert and Darius Garland. The Cavs really got beat up in the backcourt this past season, with Collin Sexton tearing his meniscus and Ricky Rubio tearing his ACL. With both guys potentially entering free agency this offseason — and LeVert as well! — plus the adding question marks of their production post-injury, it would make sense to add another young guard to the mix in Branham.
Cleveland should continue to build around Garland, and with some uncertainty surrounding the rest of the guards around him, Branham could add some stability behind whoever winds up sticking around in 2022-23. He likely won’t be a starter in year one, but would provide tremendous value off the bench as a huge supporting cast member with big upside.
E.J. Liddell — 17th overall to the Houston Rockets
The Rockets have both the No. 3 and No. 17 picks in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft. They will almost certainly end up with Duke’s Paolo Banchero with their first selection after the Magic and Thunder take Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. in either order. While Banchero is also a forward, he likely projects more towards the four-spot at 6-foot-10. With a strong, young backcourt including Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. as well as the veteran Eric Gordon in addition to Dennis Schröder, it makes sense for Houston to load up in the front court and select Liddell at 17.
Like Branham, Liddell isn’t a guy that a team will be looking to turn their franchise around from day one. With the ability to build around guys like Green and Banchero, Liddell would not be relied upon to be a primary scorer for the Rockets right away, but could still have a chance to be one of the team’s five starters even in year one. With Green at the one and either Porter Jr. or Gordon at the two, Liddell could slide in at the three — ahead of fellow OSU product JaeSean Tate — with Banchero at the four and Christian Wood at center. That is a really strong lineup with a good mix of scoring, size and of course immense potential.
Liddell really did it all for Ohio State in his final season in Columbus. While he is a bit undersized for the position at 6-foot-6, I think he would adjust to the league just fine as a small forward. His height never seemed to give him any trouble on either end of the floor because of how strong he is, as he was still able to body his way into the paint on offense and block shots with ease on defense. NBA teams also love having bigs that can shoot the three-ball, and Liddell’s percentage continued to get better each year with the Buckeyes. He won’t be the guy whose face is on the tickets, but Liddell could be a solid contributor for the Rockets right away.