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: Analyzing the NBA fits for Branham, Liddell.
Josh’s Take: E.J. Liddell - New Orleans Pelicans
During Thursday night’s NBA Draft, E.J. Liddell was expected to go somewhere in the 18-24 range. Surprisingly, because NBA talent evaluators are dumb, and would rather scratch lottery tickets than take a profit now, he fell much further than that. Liddell did not hear his named called in the first round, let alone the top-40. Holy Ryan Seacrest (American Top 40 reference, get it?), are you kidding me!?
The former Buckeye who spent all of last season on national award and watch lists, improved his game year over year, and finished as an All-Big Ten/All-Defense/All-American player was taken nearly 20 picks later than a role player from Kansas, a 255-pound guard, and a guy whose basketball experience over the last three years amounts to a stint in the G League and 12 games at Yakima Valley College? What universe am I living in?
I have been pounding the table for Liddell since April, so there is no sense in slowing down now. I acknowledge his perceived limitations. I understand that he is 21 years old — so are the three players I mentioned, who were taken 21st, 22nd, and 24th (Liddell’s projected range). And lastly, I understand that as a second-round pick, any guarantees for him are few and far between. All of that being said, I love where he landed. His situation might even be better than that of his former teammate Malaki Branham, aside from the whole money and bragging rights deal.
Branham is a heck of a player, he will absolutely be coached up and developed in San Antonio, and ceiling is not up for debate here. I just prefer Liddell’s initial landing spot a tiny bit more. He was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans, where he will be joining Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and C.J. McCollum, among others. They are flat-out better than Branham’s Spurs, but more importantly, the team has solid veteran leadership. McCollum is the President of the Player’s Association, so he and a few other guys know how to mentor young players and bring them along.
San Antonio, on the other hand, has been fighting off a rebuild for a few years, but the Spurs might have finally leaned into it Thursday night. They did not take a foreign player for the first time in forever (approximately), and instead drafted three one-and-done college players — all from Power 5 schools. So while Branham could end up with free reign, I would have looked at his situation more favorably if he ended up with a few more vets on the roster.
But getting back to Liddell, the Pelicans have shown an impressive ability to develop young players recently. Ingram was a reclamation project when they got him from the Lakers, but he has blossomed in New Orleans. Herb Jones had a broken jumper in college, but he became a valuable two-way contributor as a rookie, and the list goes on. Not to say there haven’t been misses, but the team has been building from the ground-up after their Anthony Davis trade. Lonzo Ball flourished for them as well, but then they traded him for peanuts, so maybe I shouldn’t heap too much praise on the franchise.
Positionally-speaking, I believe Liddell can find a spot in the rotation quickly. Williamson and Larry Nance Jr. are the listed power forwards of note for New Orleans, but it should be pointed out that they have a ton of wings. Well I think Liddell can play either in the NBA. If the Pelicans need rebounding or a defender who can hold his own defending the post, they might gravitate towards giving him (Liddell) minutes. At the same time, he could also fill a small-ball role at the four, taking advantage of his size and shooting touch on offense. Not to keep comparing the two Buckeyes, but Branham is only a two guard in my opinion, and the Spurs already have a number of guys who can fill that role. So I think that gives Liddell different paths to playing time initially, and he is going to be pushed in the right direction regardless.
At the end of the day, I believe both former Buckeyes landed in a good spot, which is all Gene and I are really rooting for as Ohio State fans. Branham will likely have to learn how to ride his bike without training wheels (metaphorically), and if he does, he could become a go-to guy for the Spurs very quickly. Liddell should have the benefit of proven vets around him, and different set of expectations — where the Pelicans can pick and choose spots to put him in, playing to his perceived strengths as a young role player. Call me too cautious, but I like the safety net Liddell should be working with, and I think it will lead to greater success early. Long term? That’s a different conversation, and maybe we will have that one down the road. For now, go Bucks!
Gene’s Take: Malaki Branham - San Antonio Spurs
Josh pretty much recapped the big storyline for Ohio State’s two NBA Draft entrants this year in his lamenting of the fall of E.J. Liddell. Despite a handful of head-scratchers selected before him, Liddell was not taken in the latter half of the first round as initially expected, and was instead with the No. 41 overall pick by the Pelicans. Branham, whom some had pegged as a potential lottery pick, was also taken a bit later than expected, although he still found his new home in the first round with a No. 20 overall selection by the Spurs.
Now, unlike my podcast cohost above, I can’t honestly say I've watched a ton of NBA games over the last several years. You can blame the New York Knicks’ inability to put together anything resembling a well-run organization for really my entire adult life for that, but I digress. What I have seen, however, is a full season of Malaki Branham in the college ranks, While it would have been nice to see another year of the Ohio native in Columbus, he certainly made the right choice to enter this year’s NBA Draft and make that money after putting together a phenomenal freshman campaign to become the first one-and-done for Ohio State since D’Angelo Russell in 2015.
As Josh touched on, the Spurs had three first-round picks in this year’s draft. With their first selection at No. 9, they took Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan — a 6-foot-9 forward known for his defensive prowess with a good enough offensive game at the other end to warrant a top-10 pick. Branham was San Antonio’s second selection at No. 20, before the team also chose Notre Dame’s Blake Wesley at No. 25. The Spurs would've also had the No. 38 pick, but they instead opted to trade it to Memphis for a future second-rounder and cash considerations.
Branham is a steal for the Spurs as the 20th overall pick. He isn’t the most explosive player in this year’s draft by any means, but he is an efficient scorer who can fill it up from all parts of the floor with an extremely high work ethic and above-average maturity as a 19-year-old standing at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan. We saw at Ohio State Branham’s ability to create his own shot, and with the ball not likely in his hands as much at the next level — at least not right out of the gate — he should have a chance to really show off that efficiency. His 41-percent three-point shooting certainly won't hurt either for a team that ranked 18th in the NBA this past season in making shots from beyond the arc.
In terms of team fit, there is a chance Branham gets to see an increased role on his new team in year one if Lonnie Walker IV elects to test free agency. The former first round pick out of Miami played in 70 games for the Spurs this past season while averaging 12.1 points per game in 23 minutes of action per contest. Whether Walker returns or not, Branham will certainly get a chance to compete for time at shooting guard, with the Spurs having traded starter Derrick White to the Celtics at the deadline. In addition, Branham will get to play alongside fellow former Buckeye Keita Bates-Diop, as well as All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray.
Branham will definitely need to improve at the defensive end if he really wants to get off to a fast start in the NBA, but his patience and consisting scoring ability to earn him those early minutes. The St. Vincent-St. Mary product is still incredibly young and has a tremendously high ceiling, so there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to improve even while playing against much tougher competition at the next level. There’s a reason Jay Bilas said we could look back on this draft and decide that Malaki Branham was taken too late.