It happens just often enough to be familiar. Ballyhooed prospect (does Kentucky have any other kind?) makes a modest impact as a freshman. Then everybody always has the same question: what happened?
“I’m not really sure,” said Sacha Killeya-Jones, who fit this storyline last season.
Killeya-Jones came to Kentucky as a McDonald’s All-American. His high school senior season included 13 games in which he scored 20 or more points and grabbed 10 or more rebounds. Rivals, ESPN, 247 Sports and Scout.com all rated him a top-30 national prospect.
Then as a UK freshman, Killeya-Jones did not play after Jan. 21, did not score after Jan. 7 and made only one basket after Dec. 11.
As UK Coach John Calipari likes to point out, players progress at different rates. Kentucky is synonymous with one-and-done players, but some celebrated recruits need more time to become viable NBA prospects: the Harrison twins played two college seasons, Alex Poythress played four, in part because of injury. Some choose to turn pro in spite of, rather than because of, their freshman seasons: Skal Labissiere and Daniel Orton come immediately to mind.
When asked about Killeya-Jones, Calipari offered a handful of possible reasons the player averaged 2.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 6.4 minutes in 15 games. Only walk-ons Jonny David and Dillon Pulliam played in fewer games.
What held Killeya-Jones back?
“He’s young,” Calipari said. “His age. He’s now the age of a freshman.” Killeya-Jones turned 19 on Aug. 10.
“This is all new to him,” Calipari said a moment later. “Inexperience.”
“Bam was better than him,” Calipari said in reference to one-and-done Bam Adebayo.
“We went to a small lineup, so I wasn’t playing two of those ‘bigs’ together,” Calipari said.
Then there was the thought that Killeya-Jones needed to grin and bear knee tendinitis. Of handling discomfort this preseason, the player was doing “way better,” Calipari said.
Then there was the psychic pain of falling behind other ballyhooed freshmen. “It happened to Wenyen (Gabriel),” Calipari said. “Every game is on national television. All of a sudden, you shoot three air balls. And all of a sudden, ‘Oh my God, I can’t play.’” Players must build their own self confidence, the UK coach said.
Killeya-Jones said he watched film this offseason and tried to see why he did not make a bigger impact. When asked what he discovered, he said, “You’ve got to go hard all the time. (And) you’ve got to be patient. You can’t really force anything. You can’t try to do too much.”
Although he wasn’t playing, Killeya-Jones said there was a “click in” late in the season. The inference was there would be a carryover into this season.
“Feeling my role,” he said of the click in. “Just playing how I need to play instead of trying to force things and trying to do too much. So just playing simply and slowing the game down.”
Killeya-Jones expressed gratitude for the support of UK fans “even when things weren’t going great.” The same was true for teammates, especially seniors Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder.
Calipari offered wise counsel. “The conversations were all really good,” Killeya-Jones said. “I think every time we had a conversation, I improved after that.”
Calipari’s advice included participating in the tryouts for the Great Britain National Team that would be playing the FIBA Euro Basket event. Killeya-Jones’ mother, Ley, is a native of England.
The end result is a Killeya-Jones who feels transformed going into the 2017-18 season.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “Confidence-wise, I feel (like) a whole different person. On the court it’s a whole different player, for real.”
Killeya-Jones acknowledged that he did not make real his high hopes for last season. From what he called a “good learning experience” came a greater appreciation for the virtue of patience.
“It was really humbling …,” he said. “I had to learn to kind of sit back and just work and not give up on a situation like that. And just come back ready.”