At long last, the wait is over for Braxton Key and Wahoo Nation. The basketball office announced today that the NCAA has granted Key's waiver and he will be eligible to play this season. Key will be a junior this year, slated to graduate with Mamadi Diakite, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy. He gives the Cavaliers another experienced option, having played 30 minutes per game as a freshman and 25 as a sophomore (he missed 10 games of his sophomore season with a leg injury). At 6-8, 225 pounds, Key is a powerfully-built combo forward with plus athleticism. He entered college at Alabama as a consensus top-60 recruit at #59 in 247Sports' composite ranking and #56 in the RSCI (Recruiting Services Composite Index). With Key, Virginia will have 5 of the top 75 players in the 2016 final RSCI in the rotation.
When Virginia first started recruiting Braxton for the 2016 class, his last name was Blackwell and he was playing his prep ball in Nashville, Tennessee. He and Kyle Guy were good friends. Braxton Blackwell was a two-time Tennessee Mr. Basketball and led Christ Presbyterian Academy to a state championship and two semifinal appearances in his three seasons at the school. He had scholarship offers from a rogues gallery of power 5 schools, including Virginia and Alabama, Kansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisville, Ohio State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Texas. In August 2015, it was believed that he was high on Virginia, and the feeling was mutual. Coach Bennett had one more scholarship to offer, and it was believed to be between Blackwell and De'Andre Hunter. Hunter visited and committed on the spot. Blackwell would go on to commit to Alabama in October, change his last name to Key, and transfer to Oak Hill Academy in southwest Virginia.
Braxton Key was an immediate impact player. As a freshman at Alabama, he started 30 of 34 games and averaged a shade under 30 minutes per game. His usage percentage that year was 24.9%. His statistical profile was that of a player who operated primarily on the wing. Spot up shots, transition, cuts, pick-and-roll ballhandler and isolation plays accounted for almost 3/4 of his possessions. He was good on isolation and hand-off plays and passing as a pick-and-roll ballhandler; not so good at spot-up shooting (although he ranked 75% on unguarded catch-and-shoot plays). Pick-and-roll roll man and post-up were not a significant part of his game. Defensively, 80% of his possessions were guarding spot up shooters, pick-and-roll ballhandlers, isolation and shooters coming off screens. He ranked 90%, 95%, 71% and 70% on those plays, ranging from Excellent to Very Good. He earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team, and expectations were high for his sophomore year.
That sophomore year did not go as planned. A pre-season knee injury kept Key out of the first ten games. Coach Avery Johnson brought in a pair of highly-touted guards, including OAD points guard Collin Sexton. Sexton and shooting guard John Petty came in and immediately became the center of the offense. Sexton's usage rate was a whopping 32.9%. Petty was second at 19.9%. Key was shunted to the side, marginalized to setting picks, hanging around in the corner like a Lebron James sidekick, and crashing the offensive boards. Along with his minutes and usage rate, Key's shooting percentages dropped.
Braxton Key decided it was time to move on. UVA had a scholarship and strong interest. A strong relationship with Tony Bennett, and family ties to UVA (Key is a cousin of Ralph Sampson) and the region put the Cavaliers at the top of his list of potential destinations. He scheduled visits to Charlottesville and to Miami. He never made it to Miami.
When Key committed to Alabama, the Nashville newspaper, The Tennessean, reached out to then-Scout.Com recruiting analyst Josh Gershon, who described Key's game:
"He’s an undersized four that can potentially play some three who plays hard and impacts the game in multiple ways.
“On offense, (Key) is comfortable facing the basket or posting up. He’s got a good feel and is a talented passer for the position. (Key's) motor and instincts make him a productive rebounder. He’s not necessarily a super high-ceiling guy, yet he’s a winning player whose versatility and basketball IQ should help make him an important piece to the puzzle."
Key is a very good defender, being a better defensive player than offensive. He has the ability to defend all five positions with the ball, the 2-4 as a primary defender and the 1 or 5 off switches. He was excellent at defending pick-and-roll ballhandlers, isolation plays, and post-ups in his two years at Alabama. He's also a good rebounder. He should adapt easily to Virginia's defense and combine with Hunter and Mamadi Diakite to give the Hoos a very strong set of defensive forwards.
Offensively, Braxton is a good ballhandler and passer from the forward position. He's also good at converting on offensive rebounds. He can get into the lane with the dribble, where he's a better passer than shooter. He's very effective in transition. On offense, Key is a valuable complementary player.
In this exclusive HOOS Place footage from the 2018 Blue-White Game, Key shows off what he can do for the Cavaliers, as he shuts down Kyle Guy one-on-one, then pushes the ball in transition, drives to the hoop, and finds Kody Stattmann in the far corner for the open three:Key has an NBA forward's body, with a high motor and basketball IQ. With that IQ and his humility, Key should have no problem finding his role on the Cavaliers.
Braxton Key is not a good shooter. He hit 33% of his threes as a freshman and 25% as a sophomore. His eFG% fell from 48.3% and seventh on the Tide, to 45.9% and tenth. The only area where he rated highly as a scorer was in offensive rebound putbacks. Shooting is where the year off would have helped him as he could have focused on improving his shot.
The other weaknesses that showed up on film in the two games I watched were more subtle. One, he did not appear to be a very good off-ball defender. Willing, but was late to step in for charges, lost track of guys, seemed indecisive on rotations. He will receive great training in those areas, so we will see what happens. The other impression that I got from watching him against Clemson in his first year and Vanderbilt in his second was that he thought he was a better offensive player than he was. He wanted to isolate, whether posting up or facing up, and take his man, but time after time I watched him take and miss poor shots. Again, we will have to see what good coaching does for him here.
Other than those things, Key has a very strong all-around game, which should enable him to carve out a big role with the Cavaliers.
Look for Braxton to be the "sixth starter." Expect Bennett to use a six man rotation with one or two other players getting spot minutes. As good as Huff is offensively, and as good as he and Clark looked in the scrimmage, I expect their limitations in the Packline to discourage Bennett from relying on them if he has a choice. With the versatility of Key and Hunter, he has a choice. That versatility allows them to defend every position but primary ballhandler or center - and even those on a switch. Playing those six players predominantly allows the team to switch screens the way they did so effectively last season. On offense, we might see more of the spread-4 offensive set that opened the scrimmage (although given history, it is hard to see anything but a hard reversion to strict Sides as the ACC season progresses) to take advantage of the ability of both forwards to get to the rim.
Divide 200 by 6 and you get fewer than 35 minutes per player. The abilities of the players involved allow the coaching staff to spread the minutes relatively evenly, with Jerome, Guy, Hunter and Key getting a few more (closer to 35) and Diakite and Salt a few less (closer to 30). When you have six players you can rely on so equally, you can make a six-man basic rotation work, with others providing spot relief or situational contribution.
On defense, Key is fit for a primary role as both a post and wing defender. His success at defending post-ups and dribble penetration makes him a great candidate to be put on an opponent's primary scoring forward, whether post or perimeter oriented. In the Clemson game from his freshman year that I broke down (see below), Jaron Blossomgame and Donte Grantham did not score when Key had them man-to-man, and even took very few shots.
On offense, Key's best role is as a complementary player, getting into open spaces to receive the ball and penetrate into the defense, then going to the boards. He can help with the transition game by pushing defensive rebounds up court. With Guy, Hunter and Jerome, Braxton does not need to try too much.
The "reasonable/optimstic" breakdown of expectations does not really apply to Key because they are pretty much the same: He will be the sixth man and play starter minutes. His numbers will be modest, but look for him to have better efficiency numbers than at Alabama. He's going to be a central figure.
Braxton Key is a prototype combo forward with the size to play the power forward and the agility and ballhandling to play the wing. He will increase the versatility of the roster. The one thing he has not been thus far in his organized basketball career is a good jump shooter. If he were to develop his three-point shot into a consistent 35-40% range, he would be the total package. But he came into college as an athletic, defense-oriented player who is good in transition and around the basket, and nothing about his college film or statistics changes that scouting report. He shot 33% from the arc as a freshman and 25% as a sophomore. Given the circumstances of his career, his freshman stats probably better reflect his potential starting point for improvement as a Cavalier than his sophomore.
In two complete-game videos I was able to secure from humint sources (YouTube), we can see the best of Braxton Key, and the worst of Braxton Key. You can see the defensive ability, the motor, the athleticism, the passing - and also the unreliable shooting and tendency to press on offense. In the first one, against Clemson his freshman year, Key spent most of the game on Blossomgame or Grantham and kept them from being offensive factors.
In the second video, against Vanderbilt in his sophomore year, Braxton's off-ball defensive struggles show up more, and he has trouble keeping Vanderbilt guard Saben Lee out of the lane. In this game, however, his motor and athletic ability almost brought Bama back to steal a game late.
What both videos show is that Key has the things that coaching can work with. He has an NBA body, he has a strong motor, he has a feel for the game, and he has a focus on the whole game. It will be fun to watch him hone his skills, deepen his awareness, and grow into a big role on the team.