NBA

Malaki Branham makes his Summer League breakthrough against the Houston Rockets

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LAS VEGAS — The San Antonio Spurs succumbed to the Houston Rockets, 84-97, collapsing in the second half against their interstate opponent and losing another double-digit lead for the second straight game. Despite an 18-point lead in the second quarter, the good guys lost their rhythm and fell to 0-3 in the Las Vegas Summer League.

What was a hostile Thomas and Mack Center on Sunday was a radically more neutral site on Monday. Still, the change in atmosphere was almost negligible when San Antonio started the game with sophomore stud Josh Primo out of commission due to health and safety protocols. His absence was unfortunate, but it allowed other hopefuls to shine.

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Malaki Branham, Blake Wesley, Domnick Barlow and Darius Days stepped in with Primo on the sidelines, each showing unique flashes of NBA skill on the first leg for young players to prove their worth. Scouts, coaches and front-office executives crammed into a noisy arena, and yours truly was also there to assess new members of the Silver and Black.

Malaki Branham (20 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 8 of 18)

Malaki Branham recorded a team-high 20 points while finally coming out of his early Las Vegas Summer League slump. The 19-year-old swingman was much more assertive, never hesitating to look for his shot while sharing the floor with Blake Wesley. This game was his best performance and head coach Mitch Johnson had nothing but praise.

“I think he just played his game,” Johnson said. “When the shots were there, he shot, he drove it. In previous games, he got between some, let some pass, forced some because he passed the previous ones. So it was good to see him get into a rhythm. He has a dynamic game.

Branham showed off his scoring prowess on and off the ball, patiently using screens to get to his favorite spots before stepping in and around the paint. He also walked his defender along the baseline with his back to the basket and pulled off a tough turnover. Even better, the 19-year-old started hitting three-point shots.

The Ohio State product saw more touches in college as the backbone of the offense. But he had an equally slow start with the Buckeyes until a 35-point outburst against Nebraska following a COVID hiatus. Branham was a different player after that moment, and I hope he retains his composure and confidence as San Antonio returns to play on Thursday.

Although Branham was much better on the offensive end, he struggled to make a defensive impact. Landing two steals is a reliable indicator of effort, but traditional box score statistics fall short. These numbers won’t tell you how often a player misses his assignments, and his man has consistently topped him, even getting a few finishes.

Darius Days (13 points, 11 rebounds, 4 fouls, on 5 of 10)

There’s nothing new to report on Darius Days that we haven’t said in our first two recaps. The 22-year-old looks like a seasoned pro hitting below his Summer League weight class, and looks like he’s the betting favorite to win San Antonio’s latest two-way contract once they have packed their bags to return to 2-1-0.

Darius Days had a solid third straight game with 13 points and 11 rebounds in 24 minutes. It communicates well at both ends, calling screens and switches while providing value as a three-point shooter and clearing the glass. Head coach Mitch Johnson shone when asked about the forward combo.

“He can shoot it,” Johnson said. “He bounces it. He has a path to a role in this league. He has to stay with it and keep rolling. He has done a good job in recent games.

There were familiar defensive issues for Darius as the undersized bruiser committed a handful of fouls for hanging on to guards when they dribbled past him on the perimeter. That said, his team defense and solid position in the position against traditionally sized front-line players should at least make him usable in the NBA.

Dominick Barlow (13 points, 5 rebounds, 4 turnovers, on 4 of 8)

Dominick Barlow has improved every match, which is impressive considering he’s faced James Wiseman and Jabari Smith Jr. in back-to-back contests. demonstrating the defensive versatility to cover other perimeter-oriented bigs.

The recent two-way contract signee also showed the ability to ground the ball throughout the tilt, showing his fluidity with a coast-to-coast attack that resulted in a pair of free throws . He also drove straight to Jabari before spinning into a feathery finger on the glass. These skills are not typical for nearly seven footers.

Fans and analysts alike are beginning to understand why Spurs are so high on the 19-year-old Overtime Elite product, and there’s a chance he could be an Austin Spurs staple this season. If the three-point shot, rim protection, vertical spacing, and switchability intersect significantly, Barlow will become a steal.

Blake Wesley (14 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 of 3 of 20 steals)

What happens must happen, and Blake Wesley had his first Summer League miss against the Rockets. The 19-year-old combo guard was shooting from the get-go, but his aggression never paid off as he came off the field at an abysmal 3-for-20 (15%), sinking his shooting divisions with a series of mis-attempts advised.

As has been the case since the moment he stepped onto the hardwood in Las Vegas, no one could stay ahead of Wesley. Despite bricking left, right and front of the rim, he made nine free throws as defenders had no choice but to foul him or give up an easy lay-up. Getting to the line may not always be pretty, but it’s priceless.

Welsey also kicked nearly every attacking set for Spurs while on the floor, inheriting the playing burden that Josh Primo left behind. The young guard showed an aptitude for driving and hitting long-range shooters with incredible shots in the air. But he wasn’t perfect and head coach Mitch Johnson spoke of the value of that experience.

“Not having Primo here to share management, creative, decision-making responsibilities is a lot,” Johnson said. “Houston does a good job of being aggressive, changing and sometimes having you make a play and move it around. There are things for him to watch and learn for sure.

Wesley’s exceptional defense could have been the silver and black lining of his otherwise ineffective evening. He used every last inch of his six-to-nine wingspan to deflect countless passes, and he took calculated bets in the hallways to find three flights. Its length is a constant threat to poor ball handlers and nonchalant distributors.


Check out my previous articles for more San Antonio Spurs Summer League coverage live from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Today was my last day on the sidelines at Sin City, so thank you to all the Pounders who supported my Silver and Black content.

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