Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham entering NBA draft, but leaves door open to return

Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham entering NBA draft, but leaves door open to return

Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham will enter the NBA draft, but will maintain his college eligibility, he told ESPN on Friday.

“I will be testing the draft waters while keeping my college eligibility intact,” Branham said. “I want to find the best situation and the right fit for me. I am staying in the draft if I’m in the first round because I believe if someone gives me four years to prove myself, I have no doubt that they will love what they’re getting.”

Branham, 18, was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after averaging 13.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 30 minutes for Ohio State. He is ranked No. 16 in the ESPN 100 among NBA draft prospects and was also voted third-team all-conference.

“The season was exciting, we had our ups and downs, but we battled all year,” Branham said. “We stayed together throughout and did our best. To receive Big Ten Freshman of the Year was definitely an honor, it showed me that the work was worth it. Advancing in the NCAA tourney was fun. I just wanted to make sure I did my part to help the team. I wish we could’ve been playing at the Final Four this weekend, but I know that we fought and gave it all we had. I think NBA teams were able to learn that I don’t quit and I ‘m going to work. The beginning of the season wasn’t ideal for me and my standards, but the work is what got me through.”

Branham started the season slowly, coming off the bench initially for Ohio State and reaching double-figure scoring just once in the first 10 games. He eventually excelled in Big Ten play, posting 35 points against Nebraska in December and averaging a highly efficient 20 points over the final 10 contests, including an impressive 23-point outing in a NCAA tournament loss to eventual Final Four participant Villanova.

From St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, where LeBron James attended high school, Branham emerged as a surprise one-and-done candidate as a four-star recruit who wasn’t firmly on NBA radars when the season started. As the year moved on, Ohio State increasingly leaned on him for scoring production, allowing him to demonstrate progressively polished shot-creation, playmaking and shot-making prowess both beyond the arc and in the midrange.

“I was absolutely expecting this type of Big Ten campaign,” Branham said. “I know what I’m capable of and I work hard at it. I attribute it to me being able to settle in and see the game. As you go up in levels, the speed of the game changes and I was able to slow things down with the help of my coaches and teammates. Breaking down film with coaches and gaining a better understanding of making the right reads, offensively and defensively, allowed me to excel even more in the second half of the season. I believe NBA teams will learn that I’ll be a sponge, no matter how things are going for me I’m willing to learn and take the time to be better. As I do those things, I can then apply what I’ve gained in understanding.”

A 6-foot-5 guard, Branham’s combination of size, frame, length, scoring instincts and shot-making prowess off the dribble (44% FG%) and with his feet set (43%) looks seamlessly translatable for what the NBA is looking for at his position. He plays with a unique combination of aggressiveness and poise for a player who won’t turn 19 until May, and the fact that he has made such impressive strides as the season moved on, especially facilitating for others and showing competitiveness defensively one-on- one, could put him in lottery conversations with a strong pre-draft process considering how high his ceiling is as a prospect.

The NBA draft combines will be held May 16-22 in Chicago, and the draft will be June 23 in Brooklyn, New York.

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