If an organization’s direction is determined by the major decisions made at the top of the draft, in the opening rush of free agency and in the consummation of front-line trades, it’s fate might well be tied to the smaller moves made around the edges that complete a puzzle.
Increasingly, mining the G League for talent is proving to be a cost-effective way of accomplishing the latter. The sample size is small, but the Pistons are optimistic that they mined a gem late in the regular season when they plucked Braxton Key from the roster of the Delaware Blue Coats.
Here's a look at Key’s past, present and future:
PROFILE: 6-foot-8 forward, 25 years old, 1 NBA season
2021-22 STATS: 8.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 1.2 blocked shots in 21 minutes a game over nine games with the Pistons; 19.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 1.5 blocked shots, .390 3-point shooting in 24 games with the Delaware Blue Coats of the G League
STATUS: Key signed a two-way contract with the Pistons in the final week of the NBA regular season that reportedly runs through the 2022-23 season
DID YOU KNOW?: Key’s uncle is Ralph Sampson, a three-time national Player of the Year at Virginia who was the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA draft by Houston who went on to become an NBA All-Star in each of his first four seasons with the Rockets before injuries diminished his productivity.
A LOOK BACK: Key spent his first three years of high school in Nashville, Tenn., before transferring to perennial power Oak Hill (Va.) Academy as a senior. He was the consensus No. 56 recruit in the high school class of 2016 and chose Alabama, where he led the Crimson Tide in scoring (12.0) and rebounding (5.7) as a freshman under Avery Johnson. Key’s sophomore season was slowed by injury and when Johnson was fired, Key transferred to Virginia for his final two seasons. Key mostly came off the bench as a junior but was part of a seven-player core that led the Cavaliers to the 2019 NCAA title. As a senior starter, Key averaged 9.9 points and a team-best 7.4 rebounds in 34 minutes a game for a team that went 23-7 before the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He went undrafted in 2020, participated in the limited G League bubble in 2021 and was part of Philadelphia’s 2021 training camp and subsequently signed again with the 76ers G League affiliate, Delaware. Key began exhibiting the ability to shoot well from the 3-point line on relatively high volume in the G League and continued to rebound and defend at high levels.
THE SEASON THAT WAS: The Pistons signed Key to a 10-day contract on March 24, less than three weeks before the end of the regular season. When Jerami Grant suffered a calf injury the next day, Key was thrown into the fire and played 18 minutes off the bench. Key impressed with his consistently disruptive defense and showed the versatility to guard wings and post players. He scored in double figures in four of his last five games. He had 14 points, nine rebounds and three steals in a win at Indiana, then came back with 14 points (5 of 6 shooting), five rebounds and three blocks in the next game against Dallas. Key finished the season – at Philadelphia, against the team for which he made his NBA debut – to show the breadth of his impact: 12 points (5 of 7 shooting), five rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block. When Key’s 10-day contract expired – and because there weren’t 10 days remaining in the season, the Pistons couldn’t sign him to a second 10-day deal – the Pistons waived Chris Smith, who suffered a second ACL tear in 14 months in March, and filled his two-way spot with Key.
A LOOK AHEAD: Key brings a lot to the table with his size, length and the ability to get his hands in passing lanes and disrupt shots around the rim, plus his wiry strength, rebounding, ability to put the ball on the floor and an emerging 3-point threat. The ability to guard on the perimeter with the toughness to battle power forwards and small-ball centers at the rim makes it difficult to play Key off the floor in any matchup. He’s got a great motor and runs the floor well both ways. With Grant, Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Livers, the Pistons have a solid stable of athletic wings with size – especially given their dearth of such players just two years ago. There’s a long way to go until the training camp roster is finalized between the draft, free agency and trade possibilities, but Key’s readiness to contribute could give the Pistons some ability to deal from strength at those spots if they see an opportunity to upgrade in other areas. If Key stays on a two-way deal, he gives the Pistons the luxury of having an NBA-ready player at hand should injuries thin the ranks.
MONEY QUOTE: “I’ve really liked playing with him and just watching him play. He’s always in the right spot, it feels like. Plays super hard. He just makes a lot of things happen for us. I really like watching him play and I’m excited for that contract he just got and to be around him more.” – Cade Cunningham on Key after his solid all-around game against Dallas on April 6