UVA’s Key hires agent, ready for next step

By Scott Ratcliffe

UVA basketball legend Ralph Sampson accompanied Braxton Key on the court for pregame senior recognition ceremonies earlier this month (Photo by John Markon).

Despite having his senior season cut short due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Virginia’s Braxton Key has come to peace with the situation, and is focused on taking the next steps in his basketball career.

Key was available to media members over a webinar on Wednesday, and explained what his life has been like since learning at a pre-ACC Tournament shootaround that he would not play another game at the college level.

“Life’s been pretty strange. I’m not used to having this much free time,” said Key, who is still in Virginia as he begins to prepare for a professional career. “There’s no class, there’s no going to practice, nothing really. It’s kind of weird and everyone’s just kind of gone. I’m still in Virginia training and working out and everything, but it’s kind of crazy that everything’s gone the way it has.”

The 6-foot-8, 230-pound transfer from the University of Alabama, by way of Charlotte, N.C., who was an important part of UVA’s national championship team in 2019, will finish his online courses and graduate later this spring, although he admitted he’s still not exactly sure how all of that is going to work. He says he just started his workouts after taking time to digest it all, noting that he plans to take everything one day at a time.

“I’ve taken two weeks off from the season to let my body rest, and I’m not sure how long this grind will be,” admitted Key, who added that he’s already signed with an agent.

A nephew of Cavalier hoops legend Ralph Sampson, Key plans to work out with a few NBA teams, but with everything a bit up in the air in general, he describes the entire situation as “a big unknown” at this point in time. He said it’s obviously been challenging to find a weight room to work out in or a gym to get some shots up in, but that he’s making the best of it.

He’s known as a “glue guy” that can give you a little of everything on both ends while being able to guard multiple positions defensively. He filled in admirably at “point forward” when Kihei Clark had to sit.

Key started 31 of his 65 games as a Cavalier, averaging 7.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. His role shifted as a senior, as he put up 9.9 points and a team-high 7.4 rebounds, starting 25 of 27 games. He bounced back from a wrist injury suffered against Arizona State in late November, and played a big part in the team’s turnaround and overall success.

Understandably, Key and his teammates, namely fellow senior Mamadi Diakite, were saddened to have their 8-game winning streak and all of their hard-fought momentum come to an abrupt end.

A screenshot of Key during his chat with the media Wednesday afternoon.

“We got back to Charlottesville and we met in the locker room, and it was obviously sad,” he recalled. “No one wants to see their season end. You work all summer long, all preseason, lifting, waking up early to run, do all this stuff for no postseason. So it’s obviously difficult and tough.”

Key told of how Tony Bennett handled breaking the news with a game of knockout during what turned out to be their final practice session together at UNC Greensboro the day the postseason was halted. Bennett told his players how relieved he was that the coronavirus scare didn’t happen around this time last year during the championship run.

“We got to experience that,” Key said of the thrilling finish to last season, “so it’s difficult, obviously, but [Bennett] knows it had to be done. Everyone’s taking precautionary measures and it’s out of our control.”

Key said he’s doing his part, periodically checking in with friends and loved ones.

“Just trying to send a text here and there and just make sure everybody’s ok,” he said. “There’s not much I can really do, everyone just has to take the safety precautionary measures that the CDC has recommended. I’m washing my hands, telling my friends and family to wash their hands, and just don’t be around a lot of people. I don’t really know much about it. I know as much as the news tells us, so that’s all the advice that I can give.”

Key said that when the NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was the first known case of the virus being contracted by an athlete in the United States, he figured it wouldn’t be long before such measures were put in place across the country.

“I’ve been telling the guys all year to control your controllables, and whether it’s in our control or not, control what we can,” said Key. “I knew if the NBA was getting cancelled, we most likely would be too. We’re not playing for millions of dollars.

“You just have to deal with whatever cards you’re dealt.”

Key sang the praises of a few teammates — Diakite, Jay Huff, Justin McKoy and Sam Hauser — and said he believes this team will be a national contender again next year. He thinks Hauser, who sat out this season due to his transfer from Marquette but still practiced daily with the team, could be a real superstar.

“Oh for sure,” Key said when asked if Hauser has All-ACC first-team potential. “I think he has the capability of being an All-American. He can score the ball really well. He’s another guy who gave me and Mamadi some fits in practices. Some days, he just wouldn’t miss — it was great defense, just better offense. 

“I think next year, he’ll have a big role with his leadership, and I think the team will go as far as he wants them to go in terms of just leadership, and him and Jay and Tomas will be the only seniors, so he’ll have a big role in terms of leadership. His defense is sneaky good… he’ll surprise a lot of people next year, in my opinion.”

As for this past season, Key knew the Cavaliers would exceed expectations, even in the midst of the rough patch in the middle of the campaign.

“All year long, we heard the noise of, “Oh, this is a rebuilding year, this year’s team won’t be as good as last year’s team, whatever, and just get ready for next year, especially when we lost three in a row and four out of five games in ACC play,” he said. “That’s tough to do in the middle, or the beginning actually, to make up for it, so that just showed our resiliency.

“This team next year will be really good, and I can’t wait to watch them play from afar, but just seeing the way the guys were able to fight and not give into losing or anything like that, but just trying to be better every single day, it definitely was a high note to finish out.”

Key pointed out that had the Wahoos prevailed in just one of those early, close losses, they could have shared the regular-season title with Florida State.

Key was asked if he had watched any of the recent replays of last year’s tournament. He explained, with a sly grin and a hearty chuckle, that while he didn’t see as much of the Auburn and Purdue games because he didn’t play as much in those games, he did watch the replay of the championship game against Texas Tech, and enjoyed seeing former teammates Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter take over the team’s Twitter account for some fun back-and-forth commentary on Sunday.

“Watching the games just brought back all those memories,” recalled Key. “I had kind of forgotten how big that stadium was, I saw from some of the camera angles how massive it was. And just late in the game, how guys made big plays — some things you don’t see the first or second time, but watching it again, you’re looking for different things and just the energy of it. I really wanted to get back there this year with the team, but stuff happened, so hopefully next year they can make it.”

Key said that most of all, he will miss some of the people he met during his two years in Charlottesville.

“UVA’s a really special place,” he said. “I’m so grateful for it and the opportunities it presented me, and can’t really thank it enough.”

As for what he will take from his time here, Key touched on how being a ‘Hoo impacted his life on and off the court.

“Just how much I’ve grown as a person,” said Key. “In basketball, I feel like I’ve grown also, but just leadership-wise I’ve never been in a role where I had to be a main leader like I was this year and last year. Just learning from everybody, and learning how to be a good teammate.

“It was difficult not playing as much, but it’s just taught me how to be a good teammate. Whether it’s in basketball or life, whenever things aren’t going all the way your way, the way you want it to go, there’s always ways you can impact and make a difference for a collective group. I’ll miss it for sure, but it’s I guess time for me to move on.”

We know that Wahoo Nation will never forget Key’s contributions. Here are some highlights of Key’s most memorable moments in the orange and blue:

 

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