Enduring the inevitable ebbs and flows of an 82-game regular season is a routine process for every youngster making the tremendous leap from the collegiate or international ranks to the NBA. Though some prospects have a smoother transition than others, most have a lengthy adjustment period, and Spurs rookie Malaki Branham fits into the second category.
Branham has averaged 7.5 points on .426/.290/.788 shooting splits across his first 38 games in San Antonio, oscillating between looking like a sound rotation player and executing like an inexperienced teenager (which he is) on a nightly basis. Despite posting so-so numbers on a lottery-bound ball club, the Ohio State alum gave fans a reason to be optimistic for his future with a career-high 22 points and five assists against the Kings.
The rookie swingman scored in every quarter, showing his diverse scoring arsenal for 32 minutes on Wednesday night. He plowed past De'Aaron Fox to kiss the ball off the glass, drained a trifecta of catch-and-shoot three-pointers, attacked closeouts for a reverse layup and buttery teardrop, and patiently paced himself as a pick-and-roll ball handler before elevating off the dribble for silky midrange jumpers.
Those flashes of three-level scoring from Branham have been present in a handful of contests, but this was by far his most complete performance of the season. The 19-year-old self-created points and found ways to punish the defense without primary touches. That combination of on and off-ball efficacy speaks to his capacity to fit into almost any roster configuration.
Nonetheless, inconsistency has defined most of Branham's first go-round in the 2-1-0. He followed 20 points on December 26th with a combined 26 points over his next five games (112 minutes). Some of that had to do with horrific shooting from the field, but Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford returning to the second unit also played a part in muddying the waters for defining his place in the pecking order off the bench.
The previous paragraph may not do much to inspire confidence in Malaki, though things might pan out differently this time. In an unfortunate series of events, a pair of early injuries left Tre Jones and Jeremy Sochan, who's been impressive in his own ways, on the sidelines.
That opened the door for Branham to be more aggressive. The Silver and Black will need the rookie to rise to the occasion if either of their lead initiators are out for an extended stretch, and that could be the nudge he needs to keep his foot on the gas pedal.