It’s June 26, 2008. The Spurs are coming off a disappointing, injury-riddled loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, failing to repeat as NBA champions for a fourth time. It’s time to start considering the future of several positions, including backup point guard (with an aging Jacque Vaughan the only returning point guard behind Tony Parker), and they have the 26th pick in the NBA draft to work with.
The Spurs predictably do what they had done for a decade and would continue to do for another: select an unknown prospect in George Hill out of tiny IUPUI over the likes of more known prospects, such as Mario Chalmers from college powerhouse Kansas (good call, Spurs). Like many of their late first round picks, Hill would end up being the steal of the draft and go on to have a lucrative NBA career.
Now, fast-forward to June 2022. The Spurs have three first round picks to work with, and instead of trying to refill the depth chart around a championship-winning core, they are attempting to build a new one. After selecting Jeremy Sochan with their then-highest draft pick since Tim Duncan at 9th overall, they turn their attention to 20th, where they select the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Malaki Branham.
At this point, you might be asking yourself what these two events have to do with each other. They happened 14 years apart under wildly different circumstances, with the only common denominator being both players were selected in the 20-30 range. I’ll tell you: if you believe in the chain reaction — a sequence of events where a reaction to one event causes additional reactions to take place, and without one event taking place, the next can’t — then without Hill, Malaki Branham is not a Spur (at least in this universe). Here’s how.
In 2011, Hill is traded to the Indiana Pacers on draft night for the rights to Kawhi Leonard. Good times are had for six years, including a championship, but disagreements over an injury lead to a trade demand. (Or at least that’s what we’ve been told: it’s equally as possible Leonard wanted to go to Los Angeles but needed a reason so he wouldn’t look like a villain for leaving the seemingly perfect Spurs in free agency.)
In 2018, the trade is made, and the Spurs acquire DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first round draft pick (which ended up being Keldon Johnson) from the Toronto Raptors. The Spurs make the postseason one more time to tie the all-time NBA record for consecutive trips to the playoffs at 22 seasons, but it quickly becomes clear that the first round is the ceiling with this squad, and after missing the 2020 playoffs in the Bubble and only making the play-in in 2021, the Spurs slowly begin entering rebuild mode.
This begins with DeRozan agreeing to a sign-and-trade between the Spurs and Bulls, where in return, they receive Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu and three draft picks. Young only lasts with the Spurs until the trade deadline in 2022, and they send him and Drew Eubanks to the Raptors in return for Goran Dragic (who is waived) and their 2022 first round pick, which ends up being the one the Spurs use to select Branham.
So there you have it. An innocuous event that happened 14 years prior, when Branham was just an innocent five-year-old likely with likely no idea he would (or even wanted to) become an NBA player, started a chain reaction that led to him becoming a Spur. So far, that chain has five links in Hill, Leonard, DeRozan, Young and Branham, and should Branham ever be traded and the Spurs receive a player or a draft pick that they keep in return, a new link will be added to the chain.
None of this is to say the Spurs should trade Branham, at least not right now. After a slow start, he had an impressive rookie season and Summer League showing, having likely secured a spot in the second unit (and backup starter, when needed) in just his second season, which is no small feat on a Gregg Popovich-led club. What it does show is how wild and complex his path to becoming a Spur really is. It’s not often a player’s origin on his team can be traced so far back. (It also goes without saying that there are plenty of other scenarios where the Spurs still draft Branham; this is just how it happened in today’s reality.)
For Branham’s sake and the Spurs’, hopefully he is the last link in the chain, because it will mean he succeeded (or it could mean he walks in free agency, but that’s a topic for 2026). But if the trade chain that began with Hill does continue past Branham and adds another link, it will be fascinating to see where it leads from here.