San Antonio Spurs rookie guard/wing Malaki Branham has been coming on strong in December, putting up 8.4 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in 20 minutes per game. This includes his breakout game against the Utah Jazz this past Monday, where he recorded 20 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists in the team's winning effort at home. His increasing confidence as a secondary ball handler and jump shooter has been a significant factor in the Spurs' last five wins, which followed an 11-game losing streak lasting until early December.
Branham has been instilling more confidence in fans that the Spurs may have found yet another gem late in the 1st round of the NBA Draft. So much so, in fact, that some are beginning to wonder whether or not he can make a push to be considered for one of this season's All-Rookie teams. So, with that in mind, let's briefly dive into what would need to happen for that to come to fruition.
How could Malaki Branham make his case for All-Rookie honors?
Plainly, ever since his breakout campaign with the Ohio State Buckeyes, Malaki Branham's bread and butter has been his scoring ability. He was one of the most efficient freshmen in all of college basketball, coming relatively close to hitting 50/40/90 shooting splits and converting on a ridiculous 60% of his shots coming off ball screens. While this kind of efficient scoring hasn't fully materialized yet in the NBA, we've been seeing more flashes of it lately as he's gotten more consistent playing time.
If Branham begins to get more buzz going into All-Rookie selections later on in the season, it will be because scoring performances like the one he had against the Jazz start to become more frequent. He had a slow November, but he's quietly hit 38% of his three-point shots in December along with 58% of his pull-up jump shots, which leads all Spurs players with at least 1 pull-up attempt per game in December.
To give himself better chances moving forward, he'll need to continue knocking down threes at a respectable clip, he'll need to work on getting to the free-throw line more often, and he'll generally need to shoot the ball a bit more. If he remains aggressive and takes good-quality shots, I won't be surprised if he begins to really turn the corner starting in January as he did in college.
What swing factor could solidify Malaki Branham's selection?
Branham's overall defensive aptitude was a big question mark during the draft process and remains a question mark now. While his effort and feel for the game on that end of the floor will continue to be one of his areas for improvement we'll be monitoring, I think his passing is what could be the difference between him making or not making one of this season's All-Rookie teams.
Branham's playmaking is something that was only seen sparingly during his time with the Buckeyes, but considering how efficient he is as a scorer in the pick-and-roll, mixing it up by occasionally making plays for others out of screens could dramatically open up his offensive game (and rather quickly). He is currently already on pace to surpass the 4.1 assists per 100 possessions mark he set in college, indicating to me that his playmaking could be something highlighted more quickly compared to any defensive improvements he may make during the season.
While we think his defense could begin to come around at some point, it likely won't show enough improvement during this season alone to bolster his chances in the All-Rookie team selections. But if he can continue to draw in defenders and hit the open man like in the clip above, I'd wager that his teammates begin putting the ball in his hands more often, ideally leading to more opportunities for him to shine.
Who will Malaki Branham be competing with in the All-Rookie race?
All-Rookie teams aren't necessarily chosen according to position, meaning non-wing players could be selected over Branham even if the All-Rookie teams are mostly comprised of non-wings. But young players that tend to have the ball in their hands the most also get the most shine. In other words, I think it's likely Branham will be competing with mostly guards and wings.
In the NBA's latest rookie ladder, Bennedict Mathurin, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Williams, AJ Griffin, and Andrew Nembhard are all featured in the top ten (along with Jeremy Sochan). These will likely be Branham's closest competitors in this race. I would advise fans to pay the closest attention to Williams, Griffin, and Nembhard, though, as both Ivey and Mathurin will likely be All-Rookie locks based on their usage and production.
So, this begs the big question: does Branham have a chance? If you're asking me, I think he still does. If he can continue to build confidence as a scorer and put his teammates in good positions to score, perhaps surpassing a couple of the names above in the process, he'll certainly be considered by the end of the season.