The 2022 NBA Summer League was a rough ride for the San Antonio Spurs who finished with a 1-4 record. Still, there were a lot of good moments. Josh Primo going off in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers certainly stood out. Among the other young talents for the Spurs, one consistent producer really popped in the showcase – rookie Malaki Branham. He had the hot hand throughout and was key in their only Summer League victory.
In the win over the Memphis Grizzlies to close out the Las Vegas exhibition, Branham scored 23 points with two assists and two rebounds. There were moments when he showed glimpses of what could be a future NBA star in the making. Can Branham be the next Spurs development success story? A quick look into his journey to the NBA might hold that answer.
Strong Work Ethic Builds A Strong Foundation
Branham’s early years sound like a template for a Mighty Ducks script. He began his basketball training in the fifth grade as a kid with decent size advantages but little to no skill beyond that, according to a feature that the site Eleven Warriors did on him last summer. In the article, Jason Dawson, who was Branham’s trainer from fifth grade until his freshman year at Ohio State, was candid about their time together.
Dawson spoke of a young player who had a hard time dribbling at first, and worked hard to get better. From friendly wagers with a sixth grader who wanted to dunk, to kicking Branham out of the gym during sessions if he needed it, Dawson trained him hard. Still, Branham would always return with a renewed drive to improve his game.
“He’s a perfectionist, so if he don’t get anything right, perfect – he’s still this way – then he gets upset with himself,” Dawson said in the feature. “Like, all right, he’s trying to be perfect every single time. That kind of motivates him to kind of do more, do more, do more.”
Summer League Laid the Groundwork for Malaki Branham
So Branham responds well to criticism and responds well to being challenged? Good to know, as the Spurs aren’t known for taking it easy on their players either. Both parties apparently got a taste of it first-hand at the Summer League as Branham talked about an assistant coach pushing him to be aggressive in the win against Memphis.
“I hit one [three-pointer] and he was like, ‘You aren’t going to do it again,’ ” Branham said after the game. “I don’t know which one of our coaches it was, but he just kept talking. It was fun out there. I like when people talk to me, so it’s cool.”
Branham finished the game with a total of five makes on eight attempts from beyond the arc, leading the team in scoring.
There are going to be more moments like that between the Spurs’ staff and this year’s 20th overall pick. San Antonio assistant coach Mitch Johnson, who was the head coach at the Summer League, has already laid the groundwork for Branham’s next challenge.
“Him being decisive is going to be the key,” Johnson said, as quoted in the San Antonio Express-News. “He gets in between sometimes with, ‘Should I drive it? Should I shoot it?’ Or he’s thinking, ‘I missed the last one.’ When you are as versatile and as skilled as he is, you just need to play and be aggressive. … That’s going to be one of his strengths [three-point shooting], so he needs to try to score.”
Branham Fits the Mold in San Antonio
After years of practice and an unmatched desire to improve, Branham was one of the most fundamentally sound players from the 2022 NBA Draft. Watching his workouts you see him repeating the same motions over and over again, reminiscent of Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki shooting workouts. If Popovich gives him an area of his game to improve on, evidence shows Branham has what it takes to get there. But can he take the even harsher coaching ahead of him to be great?
Popovich is notoriously known for riding his players. Even the greats like Duncan and Tony Parker weren’t above tough love from the graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. It may be the kind of environment Branham thrives in to get the Spurs back into title contention.
San Antonio fans remember a time when Popovich had to tell a young Kawhi Leonard to stop passing the ball and take his shots in the playoffs. They’ve watched Dejounte Murray develop from the guy that fell for pump fakes become an elite defender and NBA steals leader. Given the proper time and mentorship, Branham could be the next star player from the Spurs. His ceiling is high and he wants to get better. Just give it some time.