It took Zed Key exactly one made shot in his Ohio State debut to break out the finger guns.
Rolling to the rim after setting a pick for CJ Walker, he found himself by himself with space in the paint where his fifth-year senior point guard hit him with a pass. Key rose up under the rim and, with two hands on the ball, turned a would-be dunk into a layup through contact as Illinois State guard DJ Horne failed in his attempt to prevent the bucket. An and-one for the first-year big man from New York to give his team a 19-0 lead.
Finger guns time.
The amount of minutes Key played in the first two games of the Buckeyes’ 2020-21 season indicates that he will have plenty of other opportunities to make plays that lead to celebrations over the course of the next few months. He recorded 12 points and five rebounds versus the Redbirds in what head coach Chris Holtmann deemed a “good first outing,” then had eight points and four rebounds against UMass Lowell, playing 17 minutes in each game.
“I thought Zed played well,” Holtmann said after beating the River Hawks on Sunday. “He's got to understand he's a big body, so they're going to look, particularly early in the season, at some of his offense and defensive plays. He's had a couple offensive fouls. He'll get better at that. He brings great effort and energy to our group, which we desperately need. He's been a lot of fun to coach.”
The center spot, even since Kaleb Wesson left to professionalize, has been largely an unknown for the Buckeyes.
Kyle Young, as expected, started there to begin the season. Despite being 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, which makes him undersized against most high-major big men, his energy and toughness make him an option in the middle. How he plays against bigger center remains a question mark, but his role does not. That’s settled.
The bigger question regarding the interior rotation center on Young’s backup. Would either Key or Ibrahima Diallo step up? Just two days before the season when asked about the backup big man situation, Holtmann said that’s “still something we're working through and trying to figure out.”
Well, if he hasn’t figured it out yet, it’s clearly trending in one direction. Key was the first Buckeye off the bench in both of the first two games, while Diallo played seven minutes in the opener and was a healthy scratch on Sunday. Holtmann showed no hesitation in going to the freshman to play important minutes as the backup center.
If Key keeps it up, he’ll have the role locked up in the near future.
“Before the season even started, I told a lot of people that Zed Key was going to be big for us this season,” Walker said on Sunday. “Him in the inside being able to rebound offensively and defensively helps us a lot with KY and E.J. (Liddell) giving a lot, playing a lot of minutes and doing what they have to do. E.J. was in foul trouble today, so he brought a lot. Offensively, he finished under the rim, got some great defensive rebounds that we needed when we got stops.
“He just brings a lot of attention under the basket for us to make plays, like me, Duane, Justice being able to get downhill. He brings a lot of attention. He did his job really well today.”
And he’ll need to do his job really well for the foreseeable future, too, because the Buckeyes will be reliant on him throughout the season.
The 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward from New York has received positive reviews from Holtmann dating back to when he signed with Ohio State out of Long Island Lutheran last year. He first stepped foot on campus in the summer, measured in with a wingspan of greater than 7 feet and had the coaches thinking he can contribute early.
He’s not overly athletic and is trying to get in shape by losing some weight, which is why he was a three-star recruit who was ranked well outside of the top-250 national prospects until his senior year of high school. But he’s strong around the rim and can rebound well. For Ohio State, which needs somebody behind Young with some heft, he’ll get plenty of run as a freshman.
“He's got a physicality to him,” Holtmann said last week. “He's a strong kid. He's got good length. I felt from Day 1 that he was going to help this team. He'll go through some freshman bumps, but he'll definitely help this group.”