The way things have gone for Braxton Key since debuting for the Pistons on March 25, he’s going to have NBA front offices allocating more of their scouting budget to the study of G League prospects.
Key was certainly a recognizable name to NBA scouts based on his four-stat status as a top-100 high school recruit and the 12.0 points a game he averaged as a freshman starter at Alabama in 2016-17. He transferred to Virginia following a coaching change at Alabama for his final two years of college eligibility, was a key reserve on the Cavaliers’ 2019 national championship team and a starter the following season. The NBA looked at all of that and passed on Key in the 2020 draft.
Some teams probably closed the book on Key there. Others might have moved on after Key underwhelmed in 12 G League games in 2020-21, when the league’s season was reduced to a limited bubble, averaging 4.3 points and 2.1 rebounds in 12 minute a game.
The Pistons, though, noticed when Key came back a different player in 2021-22. Always considered a premium defender with the characteristics of the valued glue guys prevalent on all successful teams, Key showed off scoring punch that had been dormant since his early Alabama days this season with the Delaware Blue Coats, averaging 18.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 28 minutes a game and improving his 3-point shooting from 29 percent last year to 39 percent on 4.3 attempts a game.
In seven games since the Pistons signed Key to a 10-day contract in late March, he’s looked every bit the part of a viable NBA player at both ends of the floor. Key is averaging 8.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in 21 minutes a game. He’s shooting 44 percent overall and 36 percent from three. All of that is good stuff, but it’s merely the meat on the bone of what so quickly endeared Key to Dwane Casey – his toughness, his defense and his IQ.
“I love his defense,” Casey said Wednesday after perhaps Key’s best outing yet. “I thought his defense was spectacular. He put his chest into whoever came down there, got a couple of steals, finished around the lane. That young man is giving us everything he can give us defensively.”
Key finished with 14 points on 5 of 6 shooting, hitting 1 of 2 from three, to go with five rebounds, three blocked shots, an assist and a steal. With Marvin Bagley III, Kelly Olynyk and Luka Garza all sidelined, Casey had to use Key, at 6-foot-8 an ideal hybrid forward, at center behind Isaiah Stewart.
“He’s a great defender,” Stewart said. “He’s versatile. He’s a hard worker, he’s tough. Hats off to him. He worked his way up from the G League. He’s a good player.”
With Key’s 10-day contract expiring over the weekend, the Pistons moved to keep Key from landing elsewhere by signing him to a two-way contract that will set him up to go into training camp and beyond. Based on what he’d shown to that point, there’s not much doubt another team would have jumped in to give him the same opportunity.
Key’s ability to guard up and down the lineup, his passing, the ability to grab a defensive rebound and take it himself the other way and the comfort with which he puts the ball on the floor to attack closeouts have all caught Casey’s eye. Wings with that skill set are in high demand across the NBA and they’re easy fits on a roster that will be built around Cade Cunningham going forward. Key’s 3-point threat, passing and defensive versatility are ideal complements.
“I’ve really liked playing with him and just watching him play,” Cunningham said. “He’s always in the right spot, it feels like. He 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.”