Prior to the start of the 2022-23 season, it was well known that the San Antonio Spurs were going to spend the year focusing on the development of their young players. They traded away Dejounte Murray, which elevated the status of Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell to the top of the Spurs hierarchy, not to mention made Tre Jones to starting point guard. They also drafted three 19-year-olds in the first round of the NBA Draft, two of which were expected to spend most of the year with the Austin Spurs, learning how to play in the G League.
But in the NBA, things usually don’t go according to plan. Due to the combination of new roster rules, injuries, and having to unexpectedly waive a player, those two rookies, Blake Wesley and Malaki Branham, have been needed in San Antonio more than the coaching staff probably anticipated. Wesley was unfortunately hurt in his second game and hasn’t played since. Branham, however, has appeared in 20 games with the big squad, starting four time, and is averaging 18.4 minutes per game.
All this playing time against NBA talent is expediting Branham’s development process — something that’s noticeable on film as well as the stat sheet. If you happen to follow college basketball, you’d know that Branham wasn’t projected to be a first-round pick initially but played himself into one by averaging 17.7 points per game over his last 15 games with Ohio State. He showcased his ability to score at all three levels, which lead me to compare him to Vinny Del Negro (don’t laugh, Vinny was a quality scorer for the Spurs) prior to being selected by the Spurs.
Branham has done something similar so far in the NBA, given the increase in playing time. Over his first 10 games, he was averaging 5.0 points per game on 32.7% shooting, 25% from three. In the 10 since, he’s averaged 8.7 points per game on 54% shooting and 40% from three. You can see that his comfort level when it comes to spacing, movement, and when to take his shot continue to increase every time he takes the floor. Just take a look at this clip:
When Jones passes the ball to Jakob Poeltl, Branham starts to come up to the top of the key around the screen Jones is now setting for him. He sees Malik Beasley overplaying the passing lane, hoping to get a steal on an incoming dribble handoff with Poeltl. Because of this, Branham chooses to flare back to the wing, and with Jones still there from the initial screen, leads to a second, perhaps unintentional, screen. All of this provides enough space for Poeltl to make the pass and Branham to get an uncontested three-pointer.
This is the kind of play you see a lot from players like Josh Richardson and Doug McDermott, both who are known for their moment off the ball. Over the years they’ve spent in the NBA, they’ve learned how to break away from the initial play when they notice the defense overplaying their hand. Seeing a rookie in his 19th game make this read should bring smiles to a lot of Spurs fans faces. It shows that Branham, due to his shooting ability alone, should help open up space for Johnson and Vassell to work. Then, when you add in his ability to score off the dribble, you see that, at minimum, he can become a high-quality secondary scorer for the Spurs. His continued growth will be something to keep an eye on throughout the rest of the season.