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Sacha Killeya-Jones has answered Calipari’s call off the bench

When five-star forward Sacha Killeya-Jones committed to Kentucky back in August of 2015, both Wildcat fans and college basketball analysts knew John Calipari found a gem. He was only ranked No. 56 in the ESPN 100, but after a stellar performance at Under Armour’s All-America camp and on the AAU circuit, it wasn’t a secret he would be receiving a massive spike in the rankings in the near future.

The 6-foot-11, 220-pound power forward jumped all the way up to No. 24 in the final player rankings and was eventually named a McDonald’s All-American. Fans penciled him in as an early favorite for the starting lineup alongside Bam Adebayo, and he reportedly lived up to the billing in the early practice sessions.

In early work and scrimmages at the Joe Craft Center, he looked like a Trey Lyles clone, possessing a beautiful face-up game and smooth footwork in the post. His teammates raved about him, Coach Cal singled him out as a star performer, and NBA scouts saw him as a dark-horse difference maker for the Wildcats.

“I was surprised at how good Sacha Killeya-Jones was,” one scout told CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish following Kentucky’s Pro Day last year. “He can be their X-factor if he continues to improve at this rate.”

With all of the preseason praise he received, Killeya-Jones knew he made the right choice to come to Kentucky, and realized he had a golden opportunity to make an impact as a freshman.

“I knew this was the place I needed to be to reach my full potential,” he said at UK Media Day. “I just want to come out here and prove I can play every day.”

And then the season happened.

As the year went on, Killeya-Jones’ time on the court decreased by the night. Calipari gave him chances, but he fell victim to the big stage, getting lost on defense and routinely fumbling the ball when he saw it on offense. He failed to receive a minute of playing time in 21 of Kentucky’s final 23 games of the season.

On the sideline and around UK facilities, he looked down and disappointed in himself. He came in with big expectations, but his confidence slowly vanished.

Last Spring, there were obvious transfer whispers surrounding the sophomore forward, with most believing he would opt for heading closer to home in North Carolina. Looking from the outside, his future at Kentucky seemed in doubt.

Instead, he stuck through it and gave it another shot.

“This year is a big year,” he told reporters before the season at UK Media Day. After a summer of working with specialists and trainers, he said he felt like a “whole different player.”

And he has been exactly that.

His numbers don’t jump off the page, averaging 4.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and just under a block per game, but his consistency has been crucial off the bench for Kentucky. He has earned nearly 16 minutes per game, making the most of his time on the floor in ways that don’t show on the box score. His defense is improving by the game, he crashes the glass, and he seems to always be in the right place at the right time.

Most importantly, unlike last year, he’s thriving on the big stage.

In two of Kentucky’s biggest games, UK’s loss against Kansas in the Champions Classic, and their bloodbath victory at home against Louisville, Killeya-Jones was one of the best players on the court. Against the Jayhawks, the sophomore forward finished with eight points on 4-6 shooting, nine rebounds, two assists, and three blocks in 23 minutes of action.

Afterward the loss, John Calipari said Killeya-Jones was just starting to scratch the surface of his true potential.

“He’s getting better and better,” he said. “I mean, you have to understand: He was one of the youngest freshmen in the country a year ago. He was 17. So now he’s 18 years old, basically a freshman.”

Against the Cards, SKJ finished with eight points (3-5 shooting) and four rebounds in 19 minutes of action. His presence was key in establishing the lead before halftime, and then spreading that lead in the second.

Even in UK’s crushing College GameDay loss to Florida this past weekend, the Wildcat sophomore finished with seven points and three rebounds in just 12 minutes of action, proving yet again just how efficient he truly is.

He fights for tough rebounds, finishes on contested baskets in the paint, and consistently provides a massive spark of energy off the bench when Kentucky’s production on both ends of the floor slows down a bit. He found his role on the team and ran with it.

Last night after Kentucky’s victory over Mississippi State, Calipari said every lineup combination with SKJ this season has thrived, and the sophomore forward is set to receive yet another bump in playing time as a result.

“Every combination that played well and had good numbers had Wenyen in it. The others had Wenyen and Sacha (Killeya-Jones),” Calipari said. “Sacha was the other one. So we’re doing a rotation so those guys play more.”

And he deserves every second of that additional time on the floor.

This past offseason, many thought Killeya-Jones wouldn’t even be with the team this year.

Now, his confidence is up, and he has slowly become the difference maker many the players, staff, and scouts thought he could be when he arrived in Lexington as a freshman.

Article written by Jack Pilgrim

Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR

15 Comments for Sacha Killeya-Jones has answered Calipari’s call off the bench

  1. Rabbi Li
    8:59 pm January 24, 2018 Permalink

    Sacha Killeya-Jones positives:
    1. His game speed is increasing. He’s no longer a step slow. He appears to be playing in real time now.
    2. His court disposition stands out among all the freshmen. Other than the couple of games where he was sick his body language shows he appears to care, takes things seriously.

    Negatives (feedback):
    1. His passing needs to be seriously reevaluated. I’ve been holding off saying something about this for a while because I wanted to see a large enough cross section of his plays to be fair.

    SKJ doesn’t show that he values each possession as much as he should. His passing is a real risk… and if I was a coach on an opposing team I would exploit it. How do you do that?

    Let him post up, let us pass the ball to him, then double him hard watching the passing lanes. SKJ will give you freebies whenever you want them.

    Tightening this up.

    • Smyrna_Cat
      9:09 pm January 24, 2018 Permalink

      Good evaluation … but he isn’t a freshman.

    • Rabbi Li
      9:32 pm January 24, 2018 Permalink

      Smyrna_Cat – Thanks.

      Never said he was a freshman. What I said, “His court disposition stands out among all the freshmen.”

      The fact that freshmen are surrounding him emphasizes his steady serious disposition. It highlights it.

  2. timewilltell
    9:13 pm January 24, 2018 Permalink

    His minutes have increased fit 2 reasons. First, he has become more active and is playing better. Second,he is on the court more due to the sub par performances of Nick Richards.

  3. Alleykat16
    9:54 pm January 24, 2018 Permalink

    I remember last year toward the end of the season everyone was saying that he would be tranfering it was like after every game that he didn’t play they expected him to be transferring closer to home but he then came out and said he new this was going to happen that he wasn’t a one and done player that the process for him was going to be longer one and that Kentucky was the place for him to go through that process at and he was not going to transfer well I believed him and my respect for him grew and I root and pull for him every time he is on the floor I really like this kid

    • Peas and Carrots
      5:46 am January 25, 2018 Permalink


    • KentuckyBoy
      7:36 am January 25, 2018 Permalink

      Alley – I couldn’t agree more. The one and done hater section of our fanbase have been hollering that Cal needs to recruit kids that stick around, but they forgot that it takes time for some of these kids. I am proud of SKJ. He ( I think more than anyone else on the team ) has the blue collar, work horse mentality. He is getting better and better every game. I think by next season, it will be easy to justify him as a starter. I think Wenyen looks much better also. Minus 2 or 3 players, I think we will return the majority of this team, and add some really good freshman to the mix for next season.

  4. Aar
    11:12 pm January 24, 2018 Permalink

    I always choose a “favorite” player who is not the star. Rather, my favorite is the scrappy guy who is a sort of unsung hero who should break out some day. My past favorites have included DeAndre Liggins, MKG & Dominique Hawkins. On this team I have two favorites, SKJ & Gabriel. Cal spoke about every combination that had good numbers had one of them in it. In the NBA, players +/- numbers and efficiency ratings are published. I suspect SKJ & Gabriel have the highest plus numbers on this team. That’s a stat that earns the playing time that allows a player to get comfortable using their shot and handle in games. The scoring and assists will come in due course.

  5. az1006
    11:30 pm January 24, 2018 Permalink

    Aside from the slight resemblance, SKJ sort of reminds me of Bobby Perry. Their skill-sets aren’t all that similar (Perry was more of a perimeter player), but I can see their career-trajectories taking a similar arc. Season averages for points and rebounds through this point are really similar, as are their roles as reserve players. That being said, I think SKJ has a much higher ceiling than Perry ever had, and his improvement from year one to year two has been exponential. I can see he and Wenyen being crucial pieces, a la Willis and Hawkins, for the next two years, especially if they continue to improve the way they have already.

  6. Jiminy Crickets
    11:58 pm January 24, 2018 Permalink

    Let’s be honest, in the early season this year SKJ looked great, but kept losing time to Richards, for absolutely no reason other than cal was pushing Richards to get better. It seemed again to kill SKJ and his energy dropped. He is easily one of the top guys I root for on this team. He, Gabriel and shai are my favorites. I’d take one of those three guys over 10 Diallos

  7. KYJelly
    12:04 am January 25, 2018 Permalink

    Dat boy has ears on his jawbones

  8. FlatTopsAndBlockedShots
    5:27 am January 25, 2018 Permalink

    He should be starting and Nick should grab some bench for a couple games.

  9. Willis Wolf Tattoo
    9:00 am January 25, 2018 Permalink

    His game is a little like Isaac Humphries and Skal. He has a nice mid-range jumper that he never gets to use the way Cal plays him. His passing is atrocious though- like James Young bad.

  10. wes720
    10:43 am January 25, 2018 Permalink

    How much would a bruiser like Humphries have helped this team? I? wish he had stayed

  11. rodney
    4:11 pm January 27, 2018 Permalink