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January 22, 2023

The plan wasn’t for him to be a one-and-done at Ohio State.

When shooter Malaki Branham arrived on campus in Columbus for his freshman year, the coaching staff felt he had an NBA future — only one in the distance.

“One of his goals was to be the Big 10 Freshman of the Year and to be an NBA player,” Buckeyes associate coach Jake Diebler told The Post. “At first the conversation wasn’t about being an NBA player after a year. When recruiting started, we thought it would take at least two years. Then he came here and rubbed shoulders with other good college players, then he felt even more strongly that he needed time.

Branham, 19, became the Big 10 Freshman of the Year, and now he’s the Knicks’ sleeper.

At Knicks headquarters in Tarrytown on Monday, the 6-foot-5 Branham took part in pre-draft practice among a group of three potential lottery picks.

After taking on 6-foot-8 point guard Dyson Daniels and point guard TyTy Washington, Branham said, “We were all in competition. A few lottery guys here. I am one myself. …Three lottery guys? Its good. It was the best training I had.

Ohio State's Malaki Branham (22) reacts after dunking Loyola's Lucas Williamson in the first round of March Madness 2022.
Ohio State’s Malaki Branham (22) reacts after dunking Loyola’s Lucas Williamson in the first round of March Madness 2022.
Getty Images

It happened quickly for Branham, who the Knicks interviewed during the draft in Chicago. They love that he has the ability to not only be a shooting guard in the NBA, but a combo guard, a sniper who can also get into the paint.

Beginning in January, Diebler, his trainer, said Branham exceeded his wildest expectations.

“Because of his ability to get into the paint and his place, they don’t give him the credit he deserves for his outside shooting,” Diebler said. “He has a very good natural touch, a natural ability to put the ball in the hole. He has great length, so he can get it on a contest. His good percentages are real.

In his lone season with the Buckeyes, Branham averaged 13.7 points and shot 49.8 percent, including 41.6 percent on 3. He was also an ace from the free throw line (83.3 %). He averaged 2.0 assists but those numbers belie his ability to play.

“We put the ball in his hands a lot in closing situations,” said Diebler, whose Buckeyes will play at the Garden in the CBS Classic next season. “Two of his best late-game plays have been assists this year. He is a good creator. »

In this era of the NBA where shooting away is paramount, Branham has solidified himself as a late lottery pick.

“I feel like I’m one of the best shooters in the draft just because I’m so efficient and can shoot at a high level,” Branham said. “I feel like I’m one of the best shooters in the draft.”

The light came on for Branham after a difficult November and December, when a lack of strength diminished his production.

Ohio State guard Malakai Branham (22) dribbles past Villanova's Justin Moore in the second round of March Madness 2022.
Ohio State guard Malakai Branham (22) dribbles past Villanova’s Justin Moore in the second round of March Madness 2022.
Getty Images

“It developed after January and it became a pretty real possibility,” Diebler said of Branham leaving Ohio State after a year. “We have fully supported him in this pursuit. He’s ready and more importantly timing is a big thing and he’s moving in such a positive direction. It was time for him.

“He struggled at the start of his first season, but it became clear in the Big 10 game that he is special and is only scratching the surface. The pace of the game and physically was going to be an adjustment. But he showed great composure in the second half of the season and showed his ability to get to the places despite giving up the strength of the guy guarding him.

The Buckeyes were eliminated by eventual finalist Villanova, 71-61, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to finish at 20-13. Branham had a sensational game, scoring 23 points on 10 of 19 shooting.

“One of the things that makes him so special is that he makes adjustments and recovers things very quickly,” Diebler said. “He’s got an elite work ethic, and the other thing is he’s one of the most mature freshmen I’ve ever been around.”

Branham’s easy smile was evident in media interviews at the Chicago Combine and Westchester. “By embracing the game, I feel like that’s what I did and continue to do until my name was called on June 23,” Branham said. “Just enjoy it.”


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