On Tuesday, Virginia Basketball takes the court for their first game of the 2018-19 season. There’s going to be a new face on the court for the Hoos, one that a lot of fans weren’t sure was going to be allowed to play this season. Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama, was granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA that allows him to play right away for the Cavaliers. This is a huge win for Tony Bennett and the team as Key’s presence on both sides of the ball will be a potentially-season changing impact.
With Key, Bennett has more flexibility with his lineups. De’Andre Hunter can slide to the four with Key at the three, or Key himself can bang in the post. This benefit simply cannot be understated. Much like Hunter, Key is a playmaker that can initiate the offense or provide a spark.
As someone that joined the program over the summer, Key offers an outsider’s view of how the Hoos are approaching this upcoming season. “It’s been good,” he said at Virginia’s media day. “The guys have been focused this year. That loss really affected them in a good way I think. Everyone has been determined and focused to get back there and just do something better this time.”
Key is certainly familiar with Virginia and Bennett as he was considering coming to Charlottesville before Hunter took the final spot in the 2016 recruiting class. Now, everyone is happy and where they want to be. An alumni of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and a 247 rated four star, Key had offers from Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Louisville, Kansas, Indiana, and several others before choosing Alabama. He’s also familiar with Kyle Guy and Mamadi Diakite from high school, helping ease the transition.
His first season in Tuscaloosa was a success, averaging 12 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game as he played just under 30 minutes per contest. He shot 43% from the field and 33% from three as a freshman and was recognized for his play on the 2017 SEC All-Freshman team. As a sophomore, a knee injury sidelined him for the first 10 games of the season and saw his playing time reduced as he recovered. There was also the added element of playing alongside superstar freshman Collin Sexton. Still, he averaged five points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 25 minutes per game of playing time.
This year, I expect Key to see around 20-25 minutes per game with the chance for more depending on his ability to grasp the defense. Get ready for the Guy, Jerome, Key, Hunter, and Diakite lineup, and get ready for it to score a lot of points.
At first glance, it looks like this category is chock full. A couple places that Key could really stand out quickly is in getting to the line and rebounding. The former is something that the Hoos haven’t consistently had since Malcolm Brogdon left; the latter will be helpful in replacing the rebounds lost by the graduation of Isaiah Wilkins.
When it comes to physical play on offense, Key is all for it. “I like to get to the line and get some easy baskets there,” Key said at Virginia’s media day. According to KenPom, Key drew 3.2 fouls per 40 and made them at a 67% clip. The getting to the line last season was better than the conversion rate, but he improved from 63% his freshman year.
As far as rebounding goes, Key’s new coaching staff has worked to build his skills. “Coach Williford challenged me, challenges me every single day to be active on the glass and just create extra possessions. With the shooters that we have, when you get an offensive rebound, everyone’s crashing in on defense and that leaves guys like Kyle, Ty, and Dre shooting wide open threes.” Key likes the odds when you give one of that trio a chance with no pressure, saying, “I’ll live with those chances of them shooting a wide open three any day.”
Beyond getting to the line and rebounding, Key brings a strong defensive base to the Pack Line. He had a 2.4% steal percentage last season, and is controlled with just over three fouls committed per 40 minutes. His length and athleticism will cause problems for opponents, and his ability to steal the ball could lead to some fast breaks.
Here’s a good look at a lot of the skills that Key brings to the Hoos:
Despite showing out in the Pepsi Blue-White scrimmage (six points on two threes, six rebounds, and three assists), Key didn’t shoot well from beyond the arc last season, going 16-for-64 (25%). He shot just over 40% from the field, but 52% from two for the season.
As mentioned above, Key has been praised for his defensive abilities, but jumping into the Pack Line is not easy in any sense of the word. “It’s a difficult defense to learn, that’s for sure,” said Key. “Being in the pack, just being there is a lot different than what I’m used to in all my experience in basketball. It’s very effective and it gives the offense a tough time to get easy baskets.”
There’s an outside chance that Key starts—and he’s expected to see a lot of playing time— but Virginia fans know the defense is what’s non-negotiable for Bennett.
2017 PPG: 7.0
2017 RPG: 5.3