Inside Malaki Branham’s rise to Knicks NBA Draft 2022 sleeper

He wasn’t planned to be a one-and-one at Ohio State.

When shooting guard Malaki Branham arrived on the Columbus campus for his freshman year, the coaching staff felt he had an NBA future — just one a long way off.

“One of his goals was to be Big 10 Freshman of the Year and an NBA player,” Buckeyes associate coach Jake Diebler told The Post. “The conversation at the beginning wasn’t about being an NBA player after a year. Early on in recruitment, we had a feeling it would take at least a couple of years. Then he came here and was with other good college players, then it felt even stronger that he needed some time.

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

On Monday, the 6-foot-5 Branham attended pre-draft practice among a group of three potential lottery picks at the Knicks’ Tarrytown headquarters.

After taking on 6-foot-8-point guard Dyson Daniels and point guard TyTy Washington, Branham said, “We all competed. Some lotto guys in here. I am one myself. … three lottery boys? It’s good. That was the best training I had.”

Ohio State’s Malaki Branham (22) reacts after diving over Loyola’s Lucas Williamson in the first round of March Madness 2022.
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Things moved quickly for Branham, who the Knicks interviewed at the draft combine in Chicago. They like that he can potentially not only be a shooting guard in the NBA, but also a combo guard, a sniper who can get in the paint too.

Beginning in January, Diebler, his position coach, said Branham had exceeded his wildest expectations.

“He doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his field shoots because of his ability to get his color and his place,” Diebler said. “He has a really good natural touch, a natural ability to put the ball in the hole. He’s got a great length so he can make it through a competition. His good percentages are real.”

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

“We gave him the ball a lot in finishing situations,” said Diebler, whose Buckeyes will be playing the Garden on the CBS Classic next season. “Two of his best late-game plays this year were assists. He is a good creator.”

In this NBA era, where outdoor shooting is a priority, Branham has established himself as a late lottery pick.

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

The light came on for Branham after a rough November and December when a lack of strength reduced his performance.

Ohio State guard Malakai Branham (22) dribbles against Villanova's Justin Moore in the second round of March Madness 2022.
Ohio State guard Malakai Branham (22) dribbles against Villanova’s Justin Moore in the second round of March Madness 2022.
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“He developed after January and it became a pretty real possibility,” Diebler said of Branham, who left Ohio State after a year. “We gave him our full support. He’s ready and more importantly timing is an important element and he’s heading in such a positive direction. It was time for him.

“He struggled a bit early in his freshman season, but in the Big 10 game it became clear he was something special and just scratching the surface. The pace of the game and physically would be an adjustment. But he showed great balance in the second half of the season and showed the ability to get to the spots despite relinquishing his power to the guy guarding him.”

The Buckeyes were knocked out by eventual finalist Villanova 71-61 in the second round of the NCAA tournament, finishing 20-13. Branham had a sensational game, scoring 23 points on 10 of 19 shots.

“One of the things that makes him special is that he adapts and picks things up very quickly,” Diebler said. “He has an elite work ethic, plus he’s one of the most mature rookies I’ve ever encountered.”

Branham’s friendly smile was evident in media interviews at the Chicago Combine and Westchester. “Embrace the game, I feel like I did and will continue to do that until my name is called June 23,” Branham said. “Simply enjoy.”

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