TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Expectations are high for Alabama basketball heading into Avery Johnson’s third season, in part because of the return of sophomore forward Braxton Key.
Key flirted with the idea of entering the 2017 NBA Draft, but he did not hire an agent, allowing him to maintain his NCAA eligibility. After not being invited to the pre-draft camp in Chicago, Key ultimately withdrew his name and returned to Tuscaloosa.
The experience was humbling.
“I need to put in a lot of work,” Key said. “I was working out with a lot of guys who are in the NBA or trying to get in the NBA. I just realized I was really far off, and I needed to come back to school to work on everything.”
Key cited shooting and conditioning as the two areas where he needs to improve most. He’s noticeably leaner, which should better prepare him for the grind of SEC play. Eliminating bread and pasta from his diet has helped Key get down to around 220 pounds after playing at 230 last season.
Johnson said Key is a “different player” after his flirtation with the NBA.
“He’s more mature. He’s more of a leader on the floor,” Johnson said. “That was a blessing behind that NBA experience. Not getting your named called for the Chicago pre-draft camp. Not getting drafted. Only having one workout or so. He came back a lot hungrier.
“A lot of the things we taught, he had a chance to experience it during his workout and now he knows the importance of. Also, how good you really have to be to get drafted. You really have to be good. NBA general managers and presidents have to be in love with your talent. He’s come back a whole lot more focused.”
Key’s return gives Alabama basketball a go-to scorer on the perimeter. Returning players such as Key, point guard Dazon Ingram, forward Riley Norris and center Donta Hall, along with newcomers Collin Sexton and John Petty, make Alabama basketball one of the SEC’s more talented teams. That has raised the Crimson Tide’s hopes of making the NCAA Tournament this season after missing the dance in Johnson’s first two seasons.
“Coach needs me to step up and be a leader this year,” Key said. “We have a lot of young guys as you know. I’m just stepping up and being a leader. I think I’ve been doing a good job so far.”
Key was named to the SEC All-Freshman team last season after leading the Crimson Tide in scoring (12.0 ppg) and minutes (29.8 per game). He also led the team in double-figure scoring games (20) and games with more than 20 points (three). In addition, he ranked second on the team in assists (2.5 per game) and rebounding (5.7 per game).
Key was even better in SEC play, ranking 17th in league games with 14.0 ppg and 14th with 6.1 rpg. He was named the league’s freshman of the week on Jan. 30, after leading the Crimson Tide to wins at Georgia (Jan. 25) and vs. Mississippi State (Jan. 28). In those games, he averaged 22.5 points and 9.0 rebounds, shooting 45.8 percent from the floor (11 of 24). He also hit 50 percent of his 3-pointers (4 of 8) and 70.4 percent of free throws (19 of 27).
Despite his solid play last season, Key said he knows he can improve. Working out on his own and making his own decisions during the pre-draft process have allowed him time to mature.
“I’ve watched every game [from last season], and I’m watching myself like, ‘How’d I make this mistake?'” Key said. “Turning the ball over. Missed free throws. Just a lot of things. Then my body language. I thought last year, I would let one play carry me for the next 10 plays. Going forward now, I want to be a lot better vocally and carrying myself.”