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With new opportunities and a rediscovered jumper, Malaki Branham is showing he belongs
The Spurs have recently given their rookie guard more chances to work with the ball in his hands, and the trust is paying off nicely.
For most of the season, Malaki Branham had been the odd man out of the Spurs’ rookie conversation. Jeremy Sochan’s early playing time and ever-expanding repertoire have eaten into our collective attention span, which is to be expected considering his status as the ninth-overall pick. Blake Wesley hasn’t played in almost two months, but the brief tease he gave the masses with his energy and up-tempo style of play prior to tearing his MCL in late October left the initiated counting days during his recovery.
But Branham has been a different case. He appeared in only nine games during the months of October and November combined, and when he did get minutes there wasn’t much of a story to tell. The deadeye shooting for which he was known at Ohio State was notably absent, and outside of a few periodic flashes of scoring in the mid-range, the No. 25 pick in last summer’s draft was just kind of … there.
His game isn’t one for the highlight reels, though. Gregg Popovich has referred to Branham as an “old-school player” multiple times since his arrival in San Antonio, and it’s the perfect way to describe his style of play. His athleticism doesn’t explode off the screen despite some sneaky vertical pop, he’s no Kyrie Irving with his handles, and he’s not blowing by every defender in his way. What Branham does possess, however, is a clear, fundamental understanding of the game, and his growth within San Antonio’s system is beginning to reveal itself more and more with each passing chance he gets.
“I gotta give a shoutout to Malaki. He stepped up big when his number was called,” Devin Vassell said after the game. “It just shows him growing and getting better and maturing.”
Nothing about adapting to the NBA is easy, especially when you’re not some sort of generational talent or otherworldly athlete. The speed and size of the players, the complexities of reading defenses, the patience it takes to crack Pop’s rotation as a rookie — it takes time to truly adjust.
“It’s hard. There are some games when you don’t play, there are some games when you play five minutes, and there are some games like (Monday’s) where you get a good amount of minutes and the ball is finding you,” Vassell continued. “You’ve just gotta be ready, and you have to take advantage of your opportunity. That’s what (Branham) did, and you just gotta keep building off that. Everybody on the team has confidence in him, so he’s just gotta have confidence in himself.”
Branham set a new season and career high with 20 points in the Spurs’ 126-122 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday. But while the results are promising in and of themselves, it’s been the process that’s been most interesting.
There’s been a spike in Branham’s usage as a pick-and-roll ball-handler over the course of the last three games, and he’s made a case for more of those opportunities in the future. Of the 36 points he’s scored out of the pick-and-roll this season, 19 of them have come during this recent stretch without any drop in efficiency. In fact, he’s scored 1.36 points per scoring chance as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in that span, up from the already excellent 1.125 points per possession on the season in those situations.
With Branham’s perimeter shot finally coming around — he’s 9-for-16 from deep over his last five games after hitting just 10 of his first 44 attempts from the 3-point line this season — he’s been able to take advantage of the added space underneath, and not just as a spot-up threat attacking closeouts. With 12 of his last 15 made backets being unassisted, Branham has demonstrated some shot-creation chops and a willingness to not only score out of the pick-and-roll, but to attack bigs in mismatches if the defense chooses to switch up top on screens.
It’s taken some time, but the full breadth of his skill set has slowly started to reveal itself. He’s an intelligent player, armed with a cleverness that allows him to play the angles at his own pace in an otherwise fast-moving environment, and he operates with a calmness and patience about him you don’t often see in a 19-year-old.
“These last couple of games I’ve been more comfortable, just being more aggressive and playing my game. I feel like me just being consistent, that’s my biggest thing,” Branham said. “Pop has a lot of trust in me and I appreciate that, for putting a rookie in. I know he’s not used to doing that. But it’s great being in those moments and just trying to live up to them.”
As we navigate the ebbs and flows of The Great Development Season in San Antonio, it’s difficult to anticipate exactly what’s next on the checklist of experiments. It should be noted, Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford did not play against the Jazz despite being healthy and available. Instead, Pop gave Branham the reins to the second-unit offense, something he’d done more extensively with Sochan recently, and an opportunity he’ll certainly afford Wesley at some point upon his imminent return.
The view through the trial-and-error lens has presented both the Spurs and their fans with some interesting, chewable bits of evidence for what this young cast of characters can do on a basketball court, and Pop is fighting his nature in providing room for rookies to test their capabilities. Though at this point, it may be unfair to suggest Pop is doing any of this through clenched teeth. He understands his job better than anyone, and as long as the young guys have bought in, he’ll buy into them.
And by all accounts they have. From top to bottom, the organization has gushed about this group of teenagers since it drafted them — both as players and as people.
“We’ve got some good rookies. They’re willing to learn, they ask a lot of questions and they just continue to get better and better,” he said. “It’s a blessing to have rookies like that because they came in attentive and ready to go. They play hard, they compete and they want to learn and win.”
As for Branham, it’s about having the confidence to not just do what he’s always done well, but to add to his baseline and branch out, to try new things and test his limits. For their part, San Antonio is providing him the room and the chances to do that, and the openings to flex his newfound proverbial muscle will only become wider with time.
“He’s a hard worker. He’s put in the time and we trust him,” Johnson said. “As as you can see, game after game, he’s getting better and better.”