Welcome to Pounding the Rock’s 2022-23 player reviews! The series will look at all 16 players that finished the season with the Spurs (minus Khem Birch since he never suited up), so we won’t be reviewing players like Stanley Johnson or Isaiah Roby. In the next edition, we will be taking a look at Malaki Branham’s performance and his outlook for the future.
2022-23 Stats: 66 games, 10.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 44% FG
2022-23 Salary: $5.06 million
Contract Status: 3 years, $11 million remaining (1 year, $3.07 million guaranteed)
Malaki Branham’s season can really be split into two parts: before he became a fixture in the starting lineup, and after. The rookie wing started the season poorly after being selected 20th overall by the Spurs in the 2022 draft. He went from just one season at Ohio State to playing against the best in the world. The transition into NBA life was not easy for him.
He struggled to find his jump shot and didn’t provide much as a facilitator or defensive player. With the team in desperate need for wings, he played a role, but not a large one. Then, in February, something clicked. Branham was given heavy minutes in a February 1st loss to the Sacramento Kings, where he had a solid showing, putting up 22 points on 9 of 13 shooting. He never looked back from there.
Branham would go on to start the next 27 of 28 games he appeared in and looked like a completely new player. He looked confident, pulling up in the mid range, shooting threes off of the dribble, finishing around the rim with floaters and acrobatic lay-ins. It was as if something had finally clicked and reminded him that he could be a high volume scorer at this level. As a starter, Branham averaged 12 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2 assists, compared to the 8.5/1.8/1.9 line he put up as a reserve.
Branham’s greatest strength was his scoring in the mid-range. According to Synergy, he was in the 95th percentile for scoring efficiency on runners and made 39% of his pull up jump shots. Whether it was off handoffs, cuts or as a ball handler, he became skilled at getting into the teeth of the defense and finishing with an assortment of moves. There was a stretch in February where he was carrying the scoring load for San Antonio, a great experience for the rookie to have.
He still has a long ways to go in the other aspects of his game. The three-point shooting off of the catch is concerning. He made just 32% of catch and shoot jumpers and only shot 35% when he was unguarded. He was a below average defensive player in his rookie season as well, allowing opponents to shoot 47% from the field when guarded by him. His slow feet and high center of gravity allowed players to zoom past him on the perimeter. He has the athletic tools and length to be effective on that end, and will need to improve next year.
While it wasn’t always perfect with Branham, his performance down the stretch earned him a spot in San Antonio’s core. He showed enough scoring potential in his first season to be considered an interesting piece for the Spurs going forward.
Jeremy Sochan, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Zach Collins, Tre Jones and Malaki Branham. That is likely the best of the Spurs young core right now (and yes, we know who else is coming). To get a member of that core with a late-first round pick is always a good thing. Branham has a lot to build on but is at the least a strong bench scorer. If he can improve as a three-point shooter and perimeter defender, he will have a long career in the NBA.
With a fully healthy roster next season, is he in the conversation for a starting slot? The Spurs played him a bit at point guard last season, but his lack of creation makes him better suited for the shooting guard or small forward positions. With Vassell and Johnson on the roster, it’s hard to imagine a spot for Branham. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. Last season he struggled to get to his spots when sharing the floor with the other wings. On the second unit, he can have the ball in his hands more, and get to those mid-range looks where he is so successful.
Again, you have to feel good about his future after a strong finish to the 2022-23 season. He’s still so young, just turning 20-years-old. He has a lot of time to develop against NBA talent, and I refuse to be the one that puts a cap on his ceiling. It will be interesting to see if Gregg Popovich hands him the keys to the second unit next year. If he takes another leap and is given the opportunity, he could have a Tyler Herro-like progression towards the starting lineup eventually.
February 3rd vs. Philadelphia 76ers: 26 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 11-16 shooting (2-5 from three)
Final Grade: B
Up Next: Tre Jones