There’s an irony in Sacha Killeya-Jones playing for Kentucky. His mother believes that a singular focus on athletics can reinforce the well-worn label of dumb jock.
“She always said there’s a lot of stereotypes when it comes to basketball players (and) young athletes …,” he said. “That they think all you care about is basketball. All you do is basketball.
“So she’s always said, get good grades, show up for class, focus in class, study. Just learn different things and find your interests.”
Of course, the irony is how basketball is a never-ceasing, ever-present concern in Kentucky. You could say that Jones and his UK teammates wear something of a cloak of visibility. To borrow and update a line from the late Al McGuire, being a Kentucky player is like being LeBron James: You can never hide. A UK player is a UK player is a UK player.
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“I definitely know I’m always viewed as a basketball player,” Jones said. “I’m 6-10. Walking anywhere, even if you don’t know who I am, 6-10 (evokes questions like) ‘Where do you play basketball at?’ So, I’m definitely a basketball player.
“I’m also a kid, too. I’m 18 years old.”
Like ex-Cat Willie Cauley-Stein, another player with interests off the court, Jones grew up playing football. He played quarterback until his sophomore year of high school.
“I still love football,” he said. “I just like throwing the ball. … I wanted to play every position in football. I wanted to be a kicker at one point.”
Jones liked playing quarterback because he was good at it. But he outgrew the position and the sport.
When asked which was more fun, basketball or football, Jones said, “I’d say basketball. I’ve completely fallen in love with basketball.”
Then he added, “If I could join a seven-on-seven league and go play football, I would do it. But I’m not going to risk anything. … After my sophomore year (of high school), something clicked in me. Like basketball is the thing I really want to do.”
Jones met Cauley-Stein this summer. The two hit it off, although Jones pointed out that they didn’t have time to “break it down,” meaning discuss playing football and basketball as boys, then needing to balance basketball and other interests at Kentucky.
The comparisons to Cauley-Stein have grown familiar. Jones also hears comparisons to another ex-Cat, Trey Lyles.
“Definitely not a bad comparison,” Jones said. “Two lottery picks. I definitely want to take bits and pieces from both of their games as well as other ‘bigs’ who played here before me.”
UK Coach John Calipari offered another comparison that initially isn’t so flattering, but could ultimately make Jones blush with happiness.
Calipari recalled how early in his Kentucky season, DeMarcus Cousins begged out of practice, claiming his feet were “on fire.”
Calipari accepted Cousins’ reasoning, but added pointedly, “You know you’re never starting here, right? You can’t do conditioning … I’ll play you some, but you’re not starting.”
That doused the fire in Cousins’ feet.
Jones complained about tendinitis in his knees early this preseason.
“I’ve had to tell him, you understand, if you don’t practice, you’re not going to play, right?” Calipari said he told Jones. “Someone’s told you that, right? Like, if your knee really hurts and you can’t practice, it’s OK. But you will not get in a game, right?”
No Florence Nightingale, Calipari explained his bedside manner by saying, “75 percent of the NBA has tendinitis in their knees and their ankles. … They play and practice. You have to figure out how to play and practice.”
Jones, who grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., came to Kentucky, in part, for such tough love. He originally committed to Virginia, then decommitted and called Kentucky.
“He came to us,” Calipari said. “That’s always a good thing.”
Calipari asked Jones why Kentucky interested him. The UK coach liked Jones’ response.
“I want to be in a program that has had guys like me who have grown and have been coached and taught and challenged and have made it,” Calipari remembered Jones as saying.
After watching Jones play, Calipari said he took away a feeling of “the kid is good enough. He’s skilled. But he’s got a long way to go.”
Meet the Cats
Today’s story on Sacha Killeya-Jones is the 11th in a series of 14 on Kentucky’s 2016-17 men’s basketball players.
Coming next: Malik Monk.