Ohio (state) basketball fans can now hear: “With 14th Choice 2022 NBA draftthis Cleveland Cavaliers Choose…from St. Vincent-St.Mary High School…and Ohio State University College…shooting guard…Malaki Branum! ”
I hope you appreciate these dramatic pauses because NBA commissioner Adam Silver used them almost perfectly on draft night. While he may or may not make a similar statement on June 23, there’s a good chance the Cavaliers will draft another young star with significant ties to Northeast Ohio. Although the late lottery is a little too rich for my blood, I’m sure Branham would love his name 14th overall.
LeBron James is Akron’s original kid, at least when it comes to pop culture. James once famously called himself “just a kid from Akron”. It has become so popular and synonymous with NBA stars that LBJ now uses it as a catchphrase or catchphrase in interviews and commercials. Well, Branham is not James. He is not the heir to the throne. And he wasn’t from Akron either — at least not really.
Branham grew up in Columbus, but moved to northeastern Ohio to attend high school and play at St. Vincent-St. Mary. His ascension to potential lottery picks is more of a slow burn (compared to James), but he will soon find himself in the same league and/or sharing the same court with players he might look up to.
Now that I’ve beaten the Akron stuff, let’s talk basketball. The Cleveland Cavaliers clearly had a gold medal when they signed James in 2003. Nearly 20 years later, they may be looking for another local product in Branham, but the situation is very different. The Cavaliers needed a basketball lifeline in 2003. They are a team at risk. Not so in 2022.
If it weren’t for bad injury luck, the Cavaliers would be a playoff team this year. And I’m not making up far-fetched excuses. They are the No. 2 seed in February! Unfortunately, new guard Collin Sexton played 11 games before tearing his meniscus in November. It was a revelation for the team that Ricky Rubio tore his ACL after 34 games. Young stars Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen have missed nearly 50 games in total, and by the end of the season, the Cavaliers were out. They are still in the play-offs, but not the same team. They should definitely bounce back and be next year’s contenders.
So Branham — if he’s drafted by the Cavaliers — won’t be joining a team that needs saving. He will join a young team that is on the rise. But is he fit, is he worth the price? I think both of these issues are debatable.
Start with health: Yes, I believe Branham will eventually thrive in the current core. He’s just redundant at Caris Levert (who also grew up in Columbus), and the former Pickerington Central star has just one season left on his contract. Sexton is also a combination of guards, but he’s a free agent limited by a knee injury.
A collection of four guards can easily coexist, especially in today’s NBA. The Cavs could roll out a solid three-guard lineup, or just stagger their minutes. Fit is not an issue. Value is where I have doubts. As much as I like Branham, I’m not sure he’s worth 14th Overall choice (admittedly, this puts me in the minority). As a playoff-minded team, the Cavaliers need a player who can contribute immediately, and if that player happens to be a solid wing defender, even better.
With its current structure (Sexton’s RFA offer rivals the Cavaliers), Cleveland is strong at guard and strong in the frontcourt. They lack intermediate links. Isaac Okoro is a talented, defensive-minded wing, but his offense has yet to fully mature. He’s also listed primarily as a small forward, despite being 6-foot-5 (the same height as Branham). But the Cavaliers have a lot of core 6-foot-5 and under, and then there’s a 7-foot lone stalemate. That’s why I think the team needs a Scottie Barnes type, or a bigger wing/forward who has quite a bit of rep under his belt.
Branham could end up being a clone of Levert, albeit younger and possibly more talented. While there’s room for both, drafting Brabham would be an investment in the Cavaliers’ future — not now. That’s why I question the value. Because serious playoff contenders should prioritize immediate impact.Land a player who can make an impact at the same time Immediate improvement is an ideal situation, but I’m not sure Branham is that person…at least not yet.
If the Ohio State one-and-done star hits his ceiling, I think DeMar DeRozan and/or Khris Middleton would be a good combination. Branham isn’t as athletic as a young DeRozan, and he’s not a lights-out shooter like Middleton is right now, but he could end up being the perfect combination of the two. Having said that, I believe it will take time.
I just don’t know if his ability to create shots from the mid-range is an elite skill, especially at the NBA level. Maybe Branham is more athletic than I think he is, maybe he’s more of a perimeter shooter, but I actually think his former OSU teammate EJ Liddell is better suited to make an immediate contribution to a contender. You can call me a lunatic, you won’t be the first (or last) to do this.
I really want Branham to be a star. I cannot stress it enough. I think he’s using an impressive skill set and the potential is there. But he was young, and he found himself playing a big role in the Buckeyes because of their lack of strong supporting roles. I don’t believe he will enjoy the same freedom of movement at the next level. If he can’t rely on 8-10 open mid-range jumpers per game, he’ll need to improve his secondary offense, not to mention his defense, to stay on the floor. Is his entire game worthy of the No. 14 pick? I don’t know, but we have a chance to find out in June.
Criticisms aside, for an Ohio State basketball fan like me, Branham being on the Cavaliers will be an unprecedented moment. If it does happen, I’ll definitely be lining up for the jersey. Because my criticism is actually rooted in, you know, in the development of players and individuals reaching their ceiling. It’s all love here. So go to the Bucks to Malachi! Cleveland will be lucky to have you.