Malaki Branham Is Finding His Stride (1/28/23)

The San Antonio Spurs are fully committed to the Wembanyama sweepstakes. 

Coach Popovich has given the reigns of the team to the young players and is prioritizing development over winning. So far, that approach is paying off. Core pieces Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell have both proven why they belong in that category, with the latter in the midst of a star-caliber breakout year. Other guys like heady starting point guard Tre Jones and defensive-minded wing Romeo Langford have set themselves up for lengthy pro careers. 

As the season has progressed, the Spurs have received more and more contributions from their 2022 draft class. 9th overall pick Jeremy Sochan has shown a hunger to improve (demonstrated by his one-handed free throw shooting) and his production has increased every month in his full-time starting role. Also finding a groove as of late is the 20th overall pick, Malaki Branham. 

Branham has played an expanded role for the Silver and Black since Devin Vassell went down with a knee injury and it’s allowed him to find confidence and comfort on the hardwood. Since Vassell went down, the Ohio State product has posted 8.1 points per game, 2.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 0.5 steals on 41/27/73 splits. While those numbers absolutely don’t leap off the page, the tape shows how Branham has been coming into his own. 

Compared to Khris Middleton in the scouting process, Branham’s bread and butter is operating inside the arc. He’s been very efficient in the in-between so far in his rookie campaign, shooting upwards of 49% from there. His stroke is smooth and repeatable and it’s easy to picture Middleton when watching him rise up and knock down shots.

Along with a strong pull-up game, Branham boasts silky smooth touch on floaters. If the mid-range isn’t available, he takes an extra dribble and tosses it in over his defender.

Most freshmen aren’t proficient isolation players and Branham is no different so he needs some help getting open. He does an excellent job utilizing on-ball screens to get his shot off. He ranks in the 84th percentile amongst P&R ball handlers in points per possession (via BBall Index).

He curls tightly around picks and patiently probes the defense, searching for space to elevate. His poise in the pick-and-roll suggests he could develop into a top option offensively (further justifying the Middleton connection).

The intriguing P&R play doesn’t end at scoring. Branham occasionally delivers well-placed passes to his roll man when he doesn’t have a shot, a skill that could be expanded upon in the future.

Defensively, Branham hasn’t been asked to do much so far. He has spent the majority of his time matched up with low-minute, low-usage opponents (via BBall Index) and hasn’t looked overqualified for the job.

His upside on that end, however, is worth monitoring. His wingspan exceeds his height by over five inches which allows him to bother shots and come up with steals here and there. If he fills out his wiry frame he could evolve into a reliable point of attack defender.

As a fan of a rebuilding organization, it’s important to ignore the ever-growing tally in the loss column and instead find joy in the little things. It’s been fun to watch Malaki Branham finding his stride in the pros and both Spurs supporters and NBA lovers should be excited for what’s to come from him.

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