Last year, the only Buckeye to participate in the NBA Draft Combine had to earn a last-minute invite through the G League Elite Camp. And even then, Duane Washington Jr. did not ultimately hear his name called during the draft itself.
This year, so assured is the first-round status of both Malaki Branham and E.J. Liddell that neither former Ohio State player even partook in five-on-five scrimmages at the combine in Chicago over the past couple days. Still, the scarlet and gray stars went through measurements and athletic testing, conducted interviews with a number of NBA teams and also spoke with members of the media.
Which question threw Liddell off the most throughout the process? The two-time first-team All-Big Ten performer told ESPN2 Friday it was one involving his teammate and fellow first-round hopeful.
“Who would I pick, me or my teammate, Malaki Branham? I’m like, it’s a win-win. You can’t lose picking either one of them,” Liddell said.
Ohio state junior and two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball E.J. Liddell is back in his home state.
— James Boyd (@RomeovilleKid) May 18, 2022
Branham may end up being the first Buckeye selected of the pair, if most mock drafts hold true, but that won’t lessen Liddell’s chances at having an extended and successful NBA career in his own right.
Liddell didn’t earn an invite to the combine last season, and ultimately returned to school despite testing the waters and participating in the G League Elite Camp. But after a career-best junior campaign in which he averaged 19.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.6 blocks per game, it was neither a secret nor surprise that Liddell would remain in the draft process in 2022.
Expected to be a mid-to late first-round pick come June 23, Liddell didn’t do himself any disservice with his testing numbers and measurements at the combine. Among his standout figures was a wingspan that reached just a quarter-inch shy of 7-feet, which is impressive given his 6-foot-7 stature with shoes on. Liddell also had the best standing vertical leap of all combine participants, skying 35.5 inches, and his 38-inch max vertical leap was eighth-best among prospects who tested.
Ever since coming back to Ohio State a year ago, Liddell has discussed the fact that defensive versatility and guarding multiple positions is something NBA scouts wanted to see him improve on. Liddell made the Big Ten’s all-defensive team this past season and led the conference in blocked shots, but believes he has an even wider range of defensive capabilities that he’ll be able to showcase at the next level.
|Player||Ht (in Shoes)||Wt||Body Fat||Wingspan||Standing Reach||Standing Vert (in)||Max Vert||Shuttle Run (s)||Lane Agility (s)||Three Quarter Sprint (s)|
|E.J. LIDDELL (SF)||6’7″||243||12.2%||6’11.75″||8’7.5″||35.5||38||3.23||11.11||3.26|
|MALAKI BRANHAM (SG)||6’5.5″||194.8||6.1%||6’10”||8’6.5″||29||35||3.09||11.38||3.17|
“Just being able to guard everybody, honestly. I can play where I can guard, and I see a lot of (different matchups) on the court, to guard a lot of different people,” Liddell said. “When it comes to my lateral quickness, that’s definitely been improving and I think I can show that some more.”
Liddell’s stocky build (243 pounds at the combine) and athleticism have drawn comparisons to Boston Celtics forward and former Tennessee Volunteer Grant Williams, who went No. 22 overall in the 2019 draft after a three-year college career. If the similarities between the two players continue, Liddell could quickly find himself being a significant contributor on a championship-contending team, even if it takes him a year or two to find his footing.
“(I want to be) a guy who’s known for heart, honestly,” Liddell said. “My first year, I don’t expect it to be perfect, but after a couple years, building trust and me just being the player I’ve always been.”
Great time breaking down film with Ohio State forward EJ Liddell at the NBA Combine. Day one contributor at the next level with the type of defensive versatility and motor that has helped Grant Williams carve out such an important role in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/6C5RP1rjFE
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 21, 2022
Liddell reportedly interviewed with the Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Dallas Mavericks at the combine. The Pistons have the highest first-round pick of any of those teams at No. 5, but Liddell would figure to fall a bit lower in the draft order come late June.
E.J. Liddell, from Ohio State, interviewed with Pistons, Warriors, Bucks, Raptors, and Mavericks. Measured at 6-5.5 w/ a 6-11.75 wingspan; he the posted top standing vertical leap. He played for Bradley Beal’s AAU team said he learned to use his size and to be tough from Beal.
— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) May 19, 2022
Branham told ESPN Thursday he has recently interviewed with 10 different teams, and he said during his combine media session that the list includes the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Three of those teams have lottery picks in the draft, and the Thunder actually possess two.
Malaki Branham met with the Nets, Nuggets, Bucks, Thunder, Heat, Timberwolves, Knicks, Rockets and 76ers this week. Said he didnt know what workouts he has coming up yet.
— Krysten Peek (@krystenpeek) May 19, 2022
Branham likened the rapid interview process to “speed dating,” and said many teams just wanted to get to know him and see what the Big Ten Freshman of the Year’s personality is like before draft day.
“I think I answered that question,” Branham said.
Ohio State’s Malaki Branham conducted a Pro Day in front of a packed house of decision makers at the NBA Combine. The projected lottery pick showed his fluidity and smooth mid-range game while mixing in some unexpected defensive drills. pic.twitter.com/TMzK89FXa3
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 21, 2022
His fast ascension up draft boards came in the latter half of the college basketball season, as Branham spent the final 15 games of his true freshman campaign averaging 17.7 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting overall and 44.7 percent from 3-point range.
So what flipped for Branham, who was averaging just 6.3 points on less than 40 percent shooting from the field over his first 10 games?
“Mentally I was just being more in attack mode, picking my spots and also just helping the team out,” Branham said. “Like if they need me to score that game. I felt like physically, I was just getting in the weight room a lot. Just knowing how to pick my spots on the floor, I feel like that’s how my game was on the rise in the second half of the season.”
Had a blast breaking down film and chopping it up with potential top-10 pick Malaki Branham out of Ohio State. Strong mid-range, even stronger shoe game. pic.twitter.com/o6KAfhx7Xa
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 19, 2022
ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz compared Branham’s game to Bucks wing Khris Middleton, a three-time NBA All-Star who has averaged at least 20 points per game in four of the past five seasons, but Branham said there are a couple other players he studies due to the similarities in their game.
“(Cleveland Cavaliers guard) Caris LeVert. I like to watch Caris LeVert, you know he’s a Columbus guy as well,” Branham said. “And then also (Phoenix Suns guard) Devin Booker. They’re the same sized guys, so I like to watch them a lot just to see how they get to their spots.”
Im not sure there has been a name buzzing in Chicago this week more than Malaki Branhams. At this point, I think there is a strong possibility that he will go in the lottery. #NBADraftCombine pic.twitter.com/SyjDGpCd0y
— Matt Babcock (@MattBabcock11) May 20, 2022
After their respective standout careers at Ohio State, plenty of younger players are no doubt already studying Branham and Liddell to try and improve their craft. In a little over a month, both players will realize the payoff to their many years of hard work, and Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said in April that it will be “an important moment” for both them and the Buckeye program.
“I don’t think I’m gonna cry. It might (happen). Hopefully, I mean when that moment happens it’s gonna be a lifetime achievement,” Liddell said. “I hope I stay in the NBA for a very long time.”
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