Let’s not sugarcoat it: the Spurs have been playing some bad basketball in 2023. The franchise high 14-game losing streak has been the talk of the fan base in the days leading up to the All-Star break, but if you look at the new calendar year as a whole, San Antonio is 2-21. Yeesh.
Yes, this stretch has not been fun to watch, but it has not been without its bright spots. Zach Collins has stepped up as a real playmaking threat in the starting five after the Jakob Poeltl trade. Jeremy Sochan has started to find his footing as an NBA player. And most excitingly, the Spurs’ other 19-year-old has broken out as a potential three-level scorer and put up some great stat lines in the month of February.
So, on behalf of All-Star Weekend, a time for flash, fun and forgettable dunk contests, let’s focus on the most fun part of a rough stretch: Malaki Branham’s emergence.
Early in his rookie season, Branham struggled to find his footing. That’s normal for a late first round teenager. Branham was inconsistent offensively, turnover prone and a revolving door on defense. In his first real month of NBA action, Branham put up 5 points per game, on 38% shooting, with a putrid offensive rating of 89. Bouncing back and forth between Austin and San Antonio, Branham had to take his lumps and learn how to play in the NBA.
Boy, has he come a long way.
With the Silver and Black finding themselves with a case of the injury bug earlier this month, an opportunity for Branham arose. He took Tre Jones’ spot in the starting 5 as the lead guard and has not looked back.
This month, the rookie guard has been scorching, leading all rookies with 18 ppg and adding in 3 assists on insane shooting efficiency and volume. Branham has a true shooting percentage of 61% (other notable players with similar TS% include LeBron James and Joel Embiid), and is hitting 41% of his three-point attempts, taking roughly 6 per game. All the while, he’s taken on primary ball handling responsibilities, setting up his teammates with an assist to turnover ratio just over 2:1.
That’s what the numbers say, but what about the winningest coach in NBA history?
“He really is comfortable on the court, more so than most people his age would ever think about being,” Spurs’ Head Coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s been a quick learner… he’s earned his position, he’s not just playing because people are hurt, he’s really developed quickly.”
That’s exactly what you want to hear about a rookie player: development ahead of schedule.
Pop spoke highly of Branham’s composure on the court, which has shined in this February run. More than anything, he looks like someone who is letting the game come to him, instead of forcing things or rushing into bad shots. Take the Spurs’ most recent road loss in Charlotte where Branham dropped 23 on 71% shooting from the field, and 50% from 3. At times, Branham looked more like a 10-year veteran than a first-year pro, and he might have been the best player on the court.
He scored within the flow of the offense, starting out the game getting some easy looks at the rim on backdoor cuts (shout out to the stellar passing of the Spurs big men) and a transition three-pointer. Seeing the ball go in on easy looks early opens up his game to get into the mid-range, where he really makes teams pay.
Branham’s ability to change speeds off of the pick-and-roll make him a menace in that action. He’s got a strong handle, and his floater has quickly become one of the Spurs’ best offensive weapons this month.
Just look at this highlight from the 4th quarter of the Charlotte game. Watch how patient Branham is, going through his reads off the hand off and secondary screen, staying patient, getting his man on his hip, then finding an open floater in the lane.
Malaki creating magic with the ball pic.twitter.com/u5gBiR9gqh— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) February 16, 2023
Branham’s ability to score in the mid-range is nothing new, but his recently found three-point stroke is a swing skill that could take him from playmaking scorer to a lethal three-level threat. Branham has gotten better at not rushing his shot and finding great looks within the flow of the offense. He has an unconventional shot, but when he has the time to set his feet, his stroke looks smooth. While he’s not quite ready to shoot threes off of the bounce, just being a threat off of the catch in a Spurs’ offense known for ball movement is such a big swing skill.
Branham still gets blown by too often to consider him a good defender, but he is coming around. Because of the, let’s say, less than stellar quality of San Antonio’s defense, it’s hard to tell by the metrics if he is making a big difference on that end. However, he has recorded 6 steals this month, accounting for a quarter of his total takeaways on the year, so he’s learning to read the passing lanes.
Whether or not this is a brief flash of exceptional play or the building blocks of a mainstay on future editions of the Silver and Black remains to be seen. Right now, it’s just good to see a young player develop in front of our eyes. And in a rebuilding season, that’s about the best you can hope for. It’s a shame Branham didn’t get the nod to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, because with his current level of play, he would have certainly made some noise. With Branham and Sochan, the Spurs have TWO 19-year-olds that look like they’ll be long-term NBA starters, and to me, that makes them worth watching, even during a 14-game losing streak.