Indiana State transfer Tyreke Key came to Tennessee as a relatively unknown commodity for a grad transfer who’s already played four years of college basketball.
Key hasn’t played in over a year due to a shoulder injury, transferred from a mid-major and was mildly recruited coming out of Clay County High School.
So, what is Tennessee getting in Tyreke Key five years after he left Celina, Tennessee for Terre Haute, Indiana?
“Tyreke can put that ball in the bucket,” Tennessee assistant coach Rod Clark said. “He has really good feel for scoring the ball. He’s a really good jump shooter. He’s a really hard worker.”
“I think the obvious thing is his ability to score the basketball,” Tennessee associate head coach Justin Gainey said. “He can score it from all different areas and in a lot of different ways.”
Scoring is just what Tennessee needs. The Vols return an abundance of talent from last season’s SEC Tournament Championship team, but lost their scoring (13.9 PPG) and assist leader (4.7 APG) Kennedy Chandler.
Losing offensive production off of a 27-8 (14-4 SEC) team that’s only major weakness was its propensity to go on scoring droughts creates one of the few minor questions the 2022-23 Vols are facing entering the season.
Adding Key to the roster helps address that question.
“Last year we had games where we got in some lulls scoring wise and we didn’t have that guy we could just throw the ball, isolate and go get us a bucket or go get fouled or go get us an easy opportunity shot,” Clark said. “I think we’ve found that in Tyreke.”
One of the questions around Key was his shooting prowess. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged over 15 points per game in each of his final three seasons as Indiana State. However, the three-point shooting percentages varied radically.
Key shot a staggering 45% from deep as a sophomore before dropping to a still strong 39% as a junior and then plummeting to 32% as a senior.
Key credits the lingering shoulder injury that eventually required surgery for the dip in production.
“After my sophomore year the shoulder kind of started giving out a little bit at that point,” Key said. “I think my sophomore year I had my best numbers and each year I was trying to manage my shoulder and do different things with that.”
After addressing the shoulder injury and sitting out a full season in which Key used “a lot of time to reflect” he’s as healthy as ever and his shot shows it.
“Taking that year off really benefited me,” Key said. “Obviously I got my complete body healthy. I got my shoulder healthy the best it’s ever been.”
The results back up Key’s words. After knocking off the rust in a closed door scrimmage against Michigan State, Key shined in the Vols’ dominant exhibition win over No. 2 Gonzaga.
Key scored a game high 26 points on eight-of-12 shooting from the field and four-of-seven shooting from three-point range. That included a 1:27 stretch in the first half where Key made three triples.
“It’s as pretty a shot as you’re going to find in college basketball,” Gainey said. “He shoots a really pretty ball.”
Key’s shooting ability was a question he’s answered with flying colors but so was his ability to create offense.
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The physical guard doesn’t overwhelm you with his athleticism — a major reason he ended up at Indiana State out of college — but has impressed with his craftiness and knack for scoring with his back to the basket in the midrange.
“A lot of his stuff came in catch-and-shoot situations,” Gainey said of Key’s time at Indiana State. “Not a lot of playmaking. We’re pleasantly surprised by his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. He’s a versatile, swiss army knife type of guy.”
As impressive as Key was scoring the basketball against Gonzaga, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes was more pleased with his defense postgame.
The 6-foot-2, 211 pound guard brings defensive physicality on the perimeter and comes to Knoxville with a maturity and understanding of defense’s importance within the Tennessee program.
“You’re going to play defense or you’re not going to play,” Key said. “I think really just taking pride and guarding the ball is something that’s going to help me down the road.”
Tennessee also forced Key into a more active role as a ball handler. Behind sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler, there’s not a true proven point guard on the Vols’ roster. Key, in part, has filled that role despite never playing point guard at Indiana State.
“He has some natural instincts,” Gainey said of Key’s point guard skills. “I think his biggest gift with it is his patience. His poise. You can’t speed him up. As you talk to him over there, he has that laid back cool demeanor. That’s how he is on the court. He’ll play with pace but he’s never going to be where he’s not comfortable.”
Embracing a new challenge at a new school? The laid back Key takes it all in stride hoping to help his new team and home state school.
“Whatever I’m asked to do I’m going to do,” Key said. “I’m going to keep chipping at it every day to get better at whatever role they want me to play in.”
If the preseason is any indication, Key will do whatever the Vols need of him at a high level.