Despite impressing on the big stage in the Champions Classic back in November, at home against Louisville, and again at home versus Florida, sophomore big man Sacha Killeya-Jones has had minimal opportunities to thrive for the Cats. To make matters worse, the Kentucky frontcourt has been incredibly inconsistent, specifically from freshman starting center Nick Richards. The opportunity for playing time has been there, but for some reason, Killeya-Jones has been unable to take advantage.
During today’s SEC head coach teleconference, John Calipari was asked about the decline in Killeya-Jones’ minutes as the season has progressed. Cal’s response: he’s just behind the pack.
“He’s got guys in front of him that are doing pretty good and deserve minutes too,” Calipari said, mentioning Richards, Vanderbilt, Washington, and Gabriel as guys consistently out-performing Killeya-Jones.
At first glance, Vanderbilt, Washington, and Gabriel are obvious. They’ve each had their moments in conference play and have produced in major ways in one form or another. But Richards? Come on, now.
When taking a closer look at the numbers, however, the freshman center comes out on top by a fairly significant margin.
Killeya-Jones’ PER-40 statistics are 10 PPG, nine RPG, and 1.6 blocks per contest, to go with a true shooting percentage of roughly 60%. He also maintains a 115 overall offensive rating per 100 possessions, and a 103 defensive rating PER-100. (In incredibly simple terms, the higher the offensive rating and lower the defensive rating, the better. It boils down to overall points produced compared to the number of possessions a player has individually. You want to score more points per possession on offense, and allow fewer points on defense.)
For Richards, he’s averaging 14.5 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks PER-40 minutes, along with a TS% of 65%. His offensive rating sits at roughly 128, while his defensive rating is sitting pretty at 99 on the year, both better than the sophomore forward. If you’re looking at just advanced numbers, you’d expect Richards to be a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor.
But sometimes, the eye test can be the best indicator of overall success.
Killeya-Jones understands the game of basketball much better, but doesn’t have the physical intangibles Richards provides. That’s been determined from the start.
Richards provides high-energy and the potential for highlight plays. But if the vast majority of opportunities result in muffed passes and missed opportunities, how long are we willing to wait for that “potential” to come to fruition. Killeya-Jones is seen as the more “polished” prospect on offense when given more minutes, with the ability to rely on him to score in the post and from mid-range. For whatever reason, SKJ’s leash is much shorter than Richards’, and any mistakes made almost immediately results in (more) time on the bench. Has this been a key reason for Killeya-Jones being unable to find his groove in the latter half of this season? It’s certainly a possibility.
Richards has only broken the double-digit point barrier three times since conference play began, and has laid a fat goose egg in four SEC contests. In fact, the five-star center has managed five points or less in 17 games this season, despite starting in 31 of them. He has seen a steady minute reduction as the season has gone on, but he has always gotten the call at opening tip. Where you’d expect Killeya-Jones to be given an opportunity in Richards’ decline, he has played in just 33 total minutes over the last six contests.
Nonetheless, they both struggle with foul trouble, they both get lost on defensive assignments, and they both miss gimmes at the rim, with some of Richards’ misses coming in the most mind-boggling ways imaginable.
As the regular season officially comes to a close and with the SEC tournament gearing up this week, the question Calipari needs to address is just what to do with the starting lineup/main rotation, specifically in the frontcourt. Do you continue to hope for the best with Richards? Do you give Killeya-Jones a chance to start or allow him major minutes this late in the game?
The simplest answer may be to avoid the situation entirely and go with your most trusted group of players. I would have liked to see Killeya-Jones with a longer leash earlier in conference play to see if any sort of rhythm or chemistry could be established, but time for (major) experimentation has passed. You have to take your best rotation and roll with it.
Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, and PJ Washington. That’s your go-to lineup. That’s the core group you need to start and finish games with. That’s the group Kentucky needs to live and die with in the NCAA tournament.
Gabriel has been solid, and likely needs to be the first man off the bench. His energy and ability to hit outside shots will prove to be incredibly valuable when the offense inevitably slows up at one point or another in the tournament. Hamidou Diallo has been far too inconsistent, but he has no other option than to take a step up during postseason play. The backcourt has a bit less flexibility than the frontcourt, so he’ll have to provide relief for Green and SGA. We can only hope he thrives under the lights in the tournament, similar to his performances earlier in the year against Kansas, West Virginia, and Louisville.
Unless something miraculous happens in St. Louis this weekend, then comes Richards and/or Killeya-Jones for brief stints to provide rest and/or foul trouble relief. Build chemistry with the main guys, and work the two big men in as the game progresses, not the other way around. Trying to force a square peg in a round hole this late in the year is just begging for stress with the season on the line.
The Cats built major momentum during their four-game losing streak, and a lot of it came from that core rotation. The team reverted to hero/iso ball against Florida on Saturday, but the blueprint is still there for sustained success and an impressive run in the tournament.