It didn’t take long for Zed Key to become a fan favorite during his first season at Ohio State.
On the floor, Key became a steady, fundamentally sound contributor off the bench, averaging 5.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Both on and off the floor, Key brought an infectiously positive personality to the Buckeyes and became popular for his on-court celebrations of pointing “finger guns” when he draws a foul on a made shot and “raising the roof” when he makes a dunk.
Whether he’s playing in a big game at the Schottenstein Center or walking between classes on Ohio State’s campus, Key says his personality doesn’t change, as he tries to spread positivity to everyone around him.
“If you see me in the streets, please come up to me. I’d love to have a conversation with you,” Key told Eleven Warriors at Ohio State’s basketball media day in September. “When somebody asks me for a picture, I always say yes. I just want to be able to make their day, because now they’re going home, feeling like, ‘Wow, I really saw a college athlete from Ohio State, and I feel good.’
“I have young kids looking up to me that play basketball, so I always want to respond to that message or take that picture or like that comment. It really makes their day.”
Because of his early emergence as a fan favorite, Key was among the Ohio State athletes who immediately had plenty of opportunities to profit from his name, image and likeness once the NCAA’s amateurism rules were relaxed in July. He began selling his own “Finger Guns” apparel, made multiple paid appearances at local restaurants and has gotten multiple sponsorships to promote products on social media.
Still, he made sure that didn’t become a distraction to the more important goal of developing as a basketball player.
“Learning how to manage it, it can be tough, because sometimes you can lose focus on the main goal, which is the sport you came in for,” Key said. “But you still have to learn how to like, OK, you gotta put basketball first, because that’s really the main goal here.”
Key spent the offseason working to better his conditioning and become a more well-rounded player, knowing he needed to improve his stamina and quickness and shooting ability to make a bigger impact on both ends of the floor this season. He slimmed down from 265 pounds to 252 pounds while he also spent more time working on his foot speed and his jump shot.
Seven games into his sophomore season, it’s already clear that work has paid off.
It started to become clear right away in Ohio State’s first game of the season against Akron, when he tied his career-high with 14 points and made a game-winning layup at the buzzer.
It became even clearer on Tuesday night, when Key played a career-high 27 minutes and scored a new career-high of 20 points to lead the Buckeyes to a 71-66 upset win over No. 1-ranked Duke.
While Key was already a fan favorite, it remained in question entering this season whether Key could be more than just a rotational role player. He was ranked as only the No. 155 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2020, and at 6-foot-8, he lacks the height of a traditional center, nor does he have elite athleticism for a high-major college basketball player.
Yet in a game against a team with as many elite athletes as any team in college basketball, Key scored more points than anyone else on the floor. In a matchup with Duke center Mark Williams, who is five inches taller and was ranked 127 spots ahead of Key in the 2020 recruiting class, the Ohio State center never looked overmatched as he used his back-to-the-basket strength and soft touch around the rim to make eight field goals and draw six free throws, four of which he made.
And it wasn’t as if Key caught Duke by surprise. Mike Krzyzewski made that clear when a reporter asked him after the game if the Blue Devils prepared more for E.J. Liddell than they did for Key.
“We were prepared for Key also,” Krzyzewski said, interrupting the question as it was still being asked. “We knew that he’d back to the basket, multiple dribbles and that they go to him. He did a good job against us. We should have defended him better … He did better than we did. But it wasn’t because we didn’t know that he could do well. He had really a good game. Very methodical and powerful.”
Key has now started five of Ohio State’s first seven games and is one of only two Buckeyes averaging double digits with 10.9 points per game. Only Liddell has scored more points than Key, who also ranks third on the team (behind Liddell and Young) with 4.7 rebounds per game and fourth on the team (behind Liddell, Justin Ahrens and Jamari Wheeler) with 22.3 minutes played per game.
With Liddell playing almost exclusively as a forward this season, Ohio State needed someone to step up at center, and Key has risen to the occasion.
There’s still plenty of areas in which Chris Holtmann wants to see Key grow, but Ohio State’s coach made it clear after Tuesday’s game that he is confident in Key’s ability to man the post even though he doesn’t have prototypical height for a five.
“All those people that are clamoring for us to have a center; please, please, he’s a young kid who is growing. He is a center,” Holtmann said of Key. “He’s 6-8. He’s a little bit shorter than Terence Dials. But he has a 7-1 wingspan, he can score in the low post. He’s gotta get more fit. But he can be a load down there.
“He’s gotta get better. He’s gotta pass out of certain situations better. But I thought playing (27 minutes against Duke) speaks to his fitness level. He’s in the best shape, his body composition’s the best it’s been.”
Holtmann also appreciates Key’s enthusiasm and positive nature – though Holtmann would prefer if Key didn’t celebrate quite as much.
“I wish he’d run harder in transition when raising the roof,” Holtmann said with a laugh. “That’s my biggest frustration with that. He can get beat faster down the floor as he’s raising the roof. I think you run faster when your hands are down. But I love his energy. I love his energy.”
As long as Key can keep playing like he did against Duke, Holtmann will put up with those celebrations. On a team that has one superstar in Liddell but doesn’t yet have a consistent scorer on the perimeter, Key’s production has been a key to the team’s success. Ohio State is 5-0 this season when Key has been on the floor for at least 20 minutes, but 0-2 in games where he’s played fewer than 20 minutes.
Key knows he can’t let his early success get to his head, though. While he was the first to celebrate when Duke missed its final shot of Tuesday’s game, waving his arms to the crowd that would storm the court to celebrate with him and his teammates just a few moments later, he said after the game the Buckeyes would need to quickly turn their attention toward preparing for their next game against Penn State on Sunday – which echoed what he said before the season about staying humble even as his fame grows.
“It’s a good feeling, but you can’t let it get to your head,” Key said in September. “You still gotta be respectful and still gotta not act like you’re too big for anybody. So I like it, but I’m still the same Zed.”