The plan wasn’t for him to be a one-and-done at Ohio State.
When shooting guard Malaki Branham arrived on the Columbus campus for his freshman year, the coaching staff felt he had an NBA future — just one in the far distance.
“One of his goals was to be Big 10 Freshman of The Year and be an NBA player,” Buckeyes associate coach Jake Diebler told The Post. “The conversation early on wasn’t about being an NBA player after one year. Early on in recruiting, we felt it would take a couple of years at least. Then he got here and was around other good college players, then he felt even more strongly that he needed some time.”
The 19-year-old Branham became the Big 10 Freshman of The Year, and now he’s the Knicks’ sleeper.
On Monday at the Knicks’ Tarrytown headquarters, the 6-foot-5 Branham participated in a pre-draft workout among a group of three potential lottery picks.
After scrimmaging against 6-8 point guard Dyson Daniels and point guard TyTy Washington, Branham said, “We were all competing. Couple lottery guys in here. I’m one myself. What he have three lottery guys? That’s good. That was the top workout I had.”
It has happened quickly for Branham, whom the Knicks interviewed in Chicago. They like that he may have the ability to be not just a shooting guard in the NBA but a combo guard, a sharpshooter who can also get in the paint.
From January on, Diebler, his position coach, said Branham elevated beyond his wildest expectations.
“Because of his ability to get into the paint and his spot, they don’t give him the credit he deserves for his outside shooting,” Diebler said. “He’s got really good natural touch, a natural ability to put the ball in the hole. He’s got great length so he can get it over a contest. His good percentages are real.”
In his lone season with the Buckeyes, Branham averaged 13.7 points and shot 49.8 percent, including 41.6 percent from 3. He also was an ace at the free-throw line (83.3 percent). He averaged 2.0 assists, but those numbers believe his playmaking ability.
“We put the ball in his hands a lot in closing situations,” said Diebler, whose Buckeyes will play at the Garden in the CBS Classic next season. “Two of his best late-game plays were attended this year. He’s a good creator.”
In this NBA era where outside shooting is at a premium, Branham solidified himself as a late-lottery pick.
“I feel I’m one of the top shooters in the draft just because I’m so efficient at it and can shoot it at a high clip,” Branham said. “I feel I’m one of the best shooters in the draft.”
The light went on for Branham after a rough November and December when a lack of strength diminished his production.
“He developed after January and it became pretty real possibility,” Diebler said of Branham leaving Ohio State after one year. “We fully supported him pursuing this. He’s ready and more importantly, timing is an important element and he’s trending in such a positive direction. It was time for him.
“He struggled some in the beginning of his freshman season but he became clear in Big 10 play he’s special and just scratching the surface. The pace of the game and physically was going to be an adjustment. But he showed great poise in the second half of the season and showed ability to get to spots despite giving up strength to the guy guarding him.”
The Buckeyes were eliminated by eventual finalist Villanova, 71-61, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to finish at 20-13. Branham had a sensational game, scoring 23 points on 10 of 19 shooting.
“One of things that makes him so special is he makes adjustments and picks things up really quickly,” Diebler added of Branham’s rise. “He’s got elite work ethic and the other thing, he’s one of the most mature freshmen I’ve ever been around.”
Branham’s easy smile was evident in media interviews at the Chicago Combine and in Westchester. “Embracing the game, I feel like that’s what I did and continue to do until my name is called June 23,” Branham said. “Just enjoying it.”