A question about free throws following Kentucky’s 73-69 squeaker of a victory over Vermont on Sunday turned John Calipari’s attention to one player who’s been largely overlooked going into another Wildcats’ season dominated by youth.
Sacha Killeya-Jones is one of three scholarship sophomores on this UK team, and that qualifies him as a veteran on a roster with eight freshmen.
Going by playing time, Killeya-Jones was the second-most experienced Wildcat going into this season, behind only Wenyen Gabriel.
A quick recap of Killeya-Jones’ freshman year:
He didn’t play in any of UK’s final 19 games.
He didn’t score after logging two points in the Cats victory over Arkansas on Jan. 7.
He didn’t play more than 10 minutes in a game after a Nov. 25 win over Tennessee-Martin.
By the end of the season — with the Wildcats rolling toward a possible Final Four appearance — there were rumors that Killeya-Jones would transfer once the 2016-17 campaign was finished. Amid the joy of those first three post-game locker rooms in the NCAA Tournament, he sat mostly silent.
The 6-foot-10 power forward and McDonald’s All-American stuck it out, however, and now he seems to have found his place.
This has been probably the best year of my life.
UK sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones
His stat line Sunday — six points and four rebounds in 18 minutes — doesn’t jump off the page, but for anyone watching Killeya-Jones would have been impossible to miss. He was constantly mixing it up inside, playing an aggressive, involved, physical brand of basketball that was missing in what little time he saw on the court last season.
He also shot 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the second half, the second pair of those lifting UK to a six-point lead with less than 6 minutes left.
“Sacha making those free throws was big,” Calipari said. “By the way, let me not forget him. Sacha played his butt off today. You just saw him, the work that’s put in: this is what he’s looking like in practice and now he’s carrying it over into the game. His confidence is going to be demonstrated performance, not me telling him, ‘You’re great, you’re the best, you’re …’ No.
“You do it in practice, you go in a game, you demonstrate that performance to yourself. That’s how you build confidence. I can’t build it for these guys. He was terrific.”
For Killeya-Jones, a McDonald’s All-American who came to Lexington with high expectations last season, and for UK fans, who are used to seeing so many of those McDonald’s All-Americans succeed immediately, this has been a bit of a process.
Last year, Killeya-Jones often looked tentative on the court. He rarely mixed it up in the post. Sometimes, he didn’t do much of anything when he got time on the floor.
While fellow McDonald’s All-Americans De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo flourished, Killeya-Jones was still trying to figure it all out.
After a while, Calipari lost confidence in him, and that was it. He became a spectator for the last two months of the season.
“It was somewhat frustrating, obviously, just because you want to be on the court helping your team,” Killeya-Jones said Sunday. “But it’s not something I dwell on or anything. It was an experience that I went through, and I needed it. And I’ve grown from there and gotten so much better. I wouldn’t be who I am without that.
“I learned just watching those guys ahead of me — that effort wins out. If you’re playing harder than the other guy, then you’re going to be in a position to make the plays and be in a position to help your team.”
His teammates this season have seen Killeya-Jones progress from day to day.
The program’s Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage was just a little bit more than three weeks ago, but, even then, Killeya-Jones looked like his freshman self.
Calipari has been on him to play his role on this team — Killeya-Jones says that means defending, rebounding and running the floor — and Sunday was the best example so far that he can be an effective piece to this UK puzzle.
“Sacha has been great. Unbelievable,” teammate PJ Washington said of Killeya-Jones’ recent practices. “The energy — blocking shots, rebounds. (He’s) playing way better than what he has been.
“He’s more focused. And he just wants to win now. He likes to score sometimes, but he knows his role on this team. … Cal’s been on him a little bit. He tells him his role everyday, and Sacha comes out and does it.”
Killeya-Jones was involved in more plays than that final box score Sunday would suggest. He fought for loose balls. He kept possessions alive. He was physical in the post. He was, at times, all over the floor. In a good way.
Billed in high school as a 6-10 big man with a sweet-looking outside jumper, Killeya-Jones is finding a different way to help his team. And, after sitting out most of last season, he’s having a blast knowing he can make a difference in this one.
“This has been probably the best year of my life,” he said. “I’m just getting so much better and learning so much. It’s just an awesome experience. I’m loving it.”