Malaki Branham has been on a winding roller coaster ride at the start of his sophomore campaign that has been chock-full of erratic shooting and an inconsistent role within the nightly rotation. The 20-year-old swingman was frosty from the field across his first five games of the season, but he has since made a breakthrough as the shorthanded Spurs have asked him to shoulder more offensive responsibilities.
With Tre Jones on the sidelines with hamstring tightness on Sunday night, Gregg Popovich leaned on Branham to pick up the slack as the temporary backup point guard against the Miami Heat. Despite venturing outside his comfort zone to suit up at an unfamiliar position, the former first-rounder notched 13 points, a career-high seven assists, and one turnover on 4-of-7 shooting from the field.
Though Branham struggled to collapse the defense with a noticeable lack of rim pressure and yielded a handful of points to opposing floor generals, we can scrutinize those imperfections at another time. The positives from his performance outweighed the negatives, and his fundamentally sound outing orchestrating the attack deserves a spotlight, especially on a team needing capable playmakers.
The 6-foot-4 combo guard usually spends most of his minutes relocating, cutting, and curling around off-ball screens to find openings. However, he rose to the challenge and manufactured offense for others off the dribble as a lead initiator. Most of his passes were from a man away, but cautious decision-making is more valuable than coughing up possession of the ball and scrambling to snuff out a fastbreak.
Even without advanced reads in his repertoire, Branham displayed a real knack for processing the floor quickly and hitting teammates with timely dishes. He kicked it to Keldon Johnson on the break for wide-open three, feathered the ball over a blitz to Zach Collins in the pick-and-roll, and had the awareness to tip a brick to Victor Wembanyama for a catch-and-shoot three that thrust San Antonio ahead by double digits in the fourth quarter.
While no one would mistake Malaki for LaMelo Ball or Tyrese Haliburton, it was refreshing to see him make some tight deliveries in traffic that had an undeniably small margin for error. He showed patience and poise to sneak a dime between two defenders to Bassey for an uncontested slam when running "grenade action" out of the right corner in semi-transition. He also connected with Wemby on an alley-oop that swung the momentum back to San Antonio.
Should the Spurs shift gears and entertain utilizing Branham as a full-time facilitator? Probably not. After all, a single-game sample size is far from enough assurance to merit sweeping changes across the roster. Though with how the Jeremy Sochan experiment has panned out thus far, it might benefit the club if the coaching staff takes a small share of the playmaking pressure off his plate and redirects it to their second-year wing.