It should be said that 25-year-old Braxton Key has contributed to winning teams and programs. Key won two championships during his amateur basketball playing days. The first as a member of Oak Hill Academy and the second as a junior on the Virginia national championship team after transferring from Alabama. Key also has an impressive basketball playing pedigree as his father played college basketball at Radford and his uncle is none other than Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson.
Key has demonstrated the skills that contribute to winning during his short stint thus far with the Detroit Pistons organization. Those are the skills that helped him earn a two-way contract for the 2022-23 season. He’s not a 20-year-old undrafted rookie. He might not have a tremendous amount of “upside” left in his game. Instead, he knows how to use the skills he has to contribute to winning. Key is a depth piece who you can trust to play minutes if injuries or anything else requires him to contribute in a pinch.
I think we can all agree after watching NBA Summer League that Buddy Boeheim is not that guy. Instead, he’s the “upside lottery ticket” you hope could improve his game and see his elite college shooting translate to the NBA. Again, we can have the discussion about whether BOTH of those 2-way contracts should be used on players like that (my personal opinion), but if you are going to use it on a player who provides depth, Key is your guy. Let’s take a look at what he showed at Summer League that allows him to do that AND some of the areas of his game that are limiting his overall ceiling.
Offensively, Key definitely slides into the same mold as Isaiah Livers in terms of being a “connector” type of player. He is going to do a lot of the “little things” in terms of making the one-more-pass, cutting at the right time, grabbing an offensive rebound, and he even does some nice things off the catch and drive. We saw examples in Summer League of him driving to get himself a bucket and creating opportunities for his teammates.
Overall, his passing did leave me a little bit confused. He averaged 3.3 assists per 36 minutes and had some really nice possessions, as I mentioned before, but also averaged 4.1 turnovers per 36 minutes. Some of these turnovers absolutely came in situations where he was trying to do things he would never be asked to do on an NBA floor. Others were turnovers you simply can’t have a role player making. These turnovers actually could be the biggest argument to him not being able to see the floor for the Pistons.
Speaking of things you would not ask him to do on the offensive end, that’s where the limited ceiling starts to come into play. He simply is not able to make plays in terms of self creation or any sort of isolation. Again, this is fine for what the Pistons and Cruise will ask him to do, but in terms of talking about his overall individual development it does create a cap.
Earlier, I mentioned him in the same sentence as one of my favorite Pistons players, Isaiah Livers, but there is a major difference between these two players on the offensive end when looking at their shooting. I recently highlighted the 3-point shooting abilities of Livers, and Key simply has not shown the same acumen. Key was a career 27% 3-point shooter in his four-year college career and also only shot 65% from the free-throw line. I will say, he has shown some improvement over the past 12 months. After shooting 29% from 3 in his first G League season, he shot almost 40% from 3 (on 4.2 attempts) this past season and went 6-of-17 (35%) during five games in Las Vegas. His free-throw shooting also saw a small uptick during NBA Summer League. I am not sure this is enough to say he could be a consistent, and respectable, 3-point shooter in the NBA, BUT if that was something he added to his game that could absolutely change the type of role he may be able to carve out for himself.
As we shift to the defensive side of the ball, I want to get the negative out of the way first. I do have some questions about Key’s ability to stay in front of the ball handler. Now, there are absolutely some decent reps where he does a good job, BUT there are also plenty of possessions where the ball handler is able to slide past Key for a bucket. I do not think this is so “bad” that it limits his ability to fill the role he is currently in but without improvement, I do think it limits a bigger role for Key.
Now let’s talk about the other aspect of Key’s defense and what I believe to be the most valuable part of his game, his off-ball defensive awareness and impact. Whether it is getting through screens, scram switching, playing as the “low man,” or communicating a switch, I would put a good amount of money that Key is going to be in the right place at the right time. There is no doubt in my mind that he could be a piece in a successful defensive system, like he was for Tony Bennett and Virginia. He could even help enhance a team’s defense with what he brings off the ball.
Key may not wow you, have a major upside, or contribute a ton of box score numbers in the NBA, but make no mistake that he can make an overall contribution to this Detroit Pistons organization during his time. He currently sits as the fifth-oldest member of the 17-man roster and the way in which he plays the game can be a great example for the young(er) players. He can at least play the 3 or the 4 and even played some 5 during Summer League. His game translates well to playing with the Cruise and does not block the overall development of any other members of the roster in any way while also being able to fill in with the Pistons, if absolutely necessary. And who knows, if the shooting becomes consistent and the on the ball defense improves just a little maybe he can find himself a role in the NBA.