In the final game of his high school career, St. Vincent-St. Mary’s Malaki Branham showed the best parts of his game.
Not only did he turn in a stellar 37-point performance — catapulting the program to its ninth overall state title with a win over Columbus St. Francis DeSales — he also kept the team level-headed and focused as the Fighting Irish overcame a 33-28 halftime deficit.
“I’m biased I guess,” STVM coach Dru Joyce II said, “but there’s nobody in the state better than him. He’s by himself.”
The Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association agreed with Joyce, naming Branham as Ohio’s Mr. Basketball for the 2020-21 season on Wednesday. The award, now in its 34th year, is voted on by a statewide media panel.
Branham’s win is a record-breaking one.
As a program, the Fighting Irish now have four Mr. Basketball wins, the most of any program in the state. Branham’s win breaks a three-way tie and pushes STVM past Lima Senior and Columbus Northland; both schools have three previous winners.
The other three STVM wins belong to LeBron James (2001, 2002, 2003).
“The things that go through my mind knowing this are just being thankful for the people that have sacrificed and helped me to this point,” Branham said. “My trainer Jason Dawson, my AAU coach [Danielle] Love, the shot doc, coach Dru and all of my family members. They sacrificed so much for me to be in this situation now, so I just want to thank them. There’s been good times and bad times, but all the people that I mentioned, they always encouraged me.
“And to be on this list with LeBron just shows me that there is more work to be done. It makes me understand that there are more goals I want to accomplish and it’s going to make me work even harder than ever and not let anyone or anything get in my way.”
This year, Branham led STVM to a 25-2 record, averaging 21.3 points per game, 5.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals.
For Mr. Basketball, Branham won the award over six other finalists — Chris Livingston of Akron Buchtel, Luke Chicone of Mentor, Desmond Watson of Columbus DeSales, Kobe Rodgers of St. Xavier, George Mangas of Lima Shawnee, and Kobe Mitchell of Cadiz Harrison Central. Chris Livingston, the lone junior in the group, was the runner-up for the award.
Branham ends his high school career as a two-time state champion (2018, 2021) and with 1,501 career points. He is No. 4 on the program’s all-time scoring list behind James, Curtis Wilson and Jerome Lane.
“When it came right down to it, he understood when he needed a basket where to go to get it,” Joyce said. “That’s not as easy as it sounds. That’s something LeBron James did. When I needed a basket when LeBron James was here, he would go get it, and he knew how to go get it and where to go get it from. Some guys, they don’t understand what that good shot is for them.
“But [Branham] understood, just like in the championship game, what that good shot is for him. He knows it’s that midrange [shot] and he understands it, he’s worked at it and then he would look to get those kinds of things.”
He will continue his basketball career at Ohio State next season and added that STVM helped him get to this point where he is ready to take that next step.
“It will be a lot of work to get ready, staying in consistent contact with coach [Chris] Holtmann and the rest of the coaching staff, watching a lot of film,” Branham said. “Working on what I need to do better to get ready for the next level, building on my skill set and improving on my weaknesses. It will be more about me learning and growing as a young man and [becoming] an even better player as I prepare to take the next step in my life.”
Note: The All-Ohio boys basketball teams will appear in the weekend sports editions of the Gallipolis Daily Tribune, Point Pleasant Register and The Daily Sentinel.
Ashley Bastock is a sports writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and provided this story on behalf of the OPSWA.