Spurs: Malaki Branham could be what Lonnie Walker never was
By Will Eudy
The San Antonio Spurs had an eventful draft night. After starting the day with three first-round picks, many fans thought the team would be packaging at least one of their selections in a trade. But as the draft went on, fewer trades went down than we were used to seeing.
The Spurs ended up keeping all of their record three first-round draft picks, selecting Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham, and Blake Wesley with picks nine, 20, and 25, respectively.
After sending the 38th pick to Memphis for a future second-round pick and cash, San Antonio will be adding three new players to their roster for 2022-23. So what does this mean for current Spurs players? For many, it will mean stepping up their game or risk losing minutes to these talented rookies. But for Lonnie Walker, Malaki Branham's selection could signal the end of his time as a Spur altogether.
Before the draft, there were already questions as to where Walker fit into San Antonio's long term plans. With so many guards on the roster, his expendability was already on the rise. Couple that with the fact that his on-court performance basically plateaued from last season, and Lonnie's chances of earning a contract extension were dwindling even more.
Branham Is What We Hoped Walker Would Be
But the real nail in the coffin for the fourth-year guard could be that Malaki Branham ends up being everything the Spurs hoped Walker would be coming out of college. Branham is calm, cool, and collected with the ball in his hands, whereas Lonnie has often been like a bull in a china shop.
Branham was named the Big 10's Freshman of the Year in 2022 partly because of his incredible scoring efficiency. A very versatile offensive player who can attack the basket in a myriad of ways, Branham shot just a hair under 50% from the field in his lone college season at 49.8%. He did this while finding ways to score from all over the floor, knocking down tough shots far from the hoop, finishing at the rim, and utilizing a crafty floater in the midrange as well.
His shooting numbers far surpass those of Lonnie Walker from his freshman season at Miami. Branham actually shot a higher percentage from three (41.6%) at Ohio State than Walker did from the field (41.5%) in college. Malaki also had a higher overall field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and player efficiency rating. While shooting percentages aren't everything, it's clear the Spurs found a player that can be a consistent bucket-getter.
The fact that Branham threatens to be a consistent offensive player from day one absolutely spells trouble for Lonnie Walker, who has struggled with consistency throughout his four-year career. In 2021-22 on his highest usage ever, Walker took a career-high 10.9 shot attempts per game but finished the year shooting just 40.7% from the field.
One of the few attributes Walker possesses an advantage over Branham in is athleticism. But what Malaki lacks in explosion and raw athletic talent, he more than makes up for with off-ball movement, good balance, and excellent timing on his drives and shot attempts. He plays well in the pick and roll, and he's just a very good overall fit for this team.
Many draft analysts including ESPN's Jay Bilas thought Malaki Branham could have been taken much higher in this draft, and he was projected as a lottery pick by several outlets. As a result, the fact that he threatens to take Lonnie Walker's job isn't disrespectful to Lonnie. Branham is a supremely talented shot creator that will likely be a better version of what Walker brought to the table in San Antonio.
The Spurs can still extend El Cuatro a qualifying offer if they want to keep him around at the end of the bench, but it's all but guaranteed he goes elsewhere now.