The first couple of weeks after Sacha Killeya-Jones committed to play basketball for the University of Kentucky were quiet on the Wildcats’ recruiting front. So quiet that he started to think the unthinkable.
Killeya-Jones would get on Twitter and read that fellow five-star big man Edrice “Bam” Adebayo was a “lock” to North Carolina State. He read that top-10 recruit Wenyen Gabriel would end up going to Duke.
It was late August, he was the Wildcats’ only commitment for the class of 2016, and it seemed like every other top recruit in the country was leaning toward some other school.
“And I’m like, ‘What if nobody else comes to Kentucky? What if I’m the only commit?’ I mean, it’s unreasonable to think that way, I know, but I committed so early and they were saying everybody was going somewhere else.”
Killeya-Jones sat in the stands at Pulaski County High School on Saturday night and recalled his thought process during those uncertain weeks. He laughs about it now.
Gabriel committed to Kentucky on Oct. 1, then came maybe the most impressive flurry of recruiting during John Calipari’s time in Lexington — commitments from Adebayo and five-star guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk over a six-day period in November.
“It’s been crazy to watch it all unfold behind the scenes,” Killeya-Jones said. “I was really happy to see it come together. I was hoping it would work out this way, get a really big recruiting class.”
The 6-foot-11 power forward was in Somerset with Virginia Episcopal School on Saturday for a game against Prolific Prep (Calif.), giving UK fans an early look at a player who will be calling Rupp Arena his basketball home this time next season.
Killeya-Jones finished with 19 points, 17 rebounds and showed off many aspects of his all-around game in the 72-54 loss. In one sequence, he took his man off the dribble from the three-point line, spun around the help defender and drained a floater in the lane. He showed particular skill finding open teammates out of the double team and was relentless on the offensive boards, even after the outcome of the game was clearly decided.
Prolific Prep’s roster includes Josh Jackson — the No. 1 overall recruit in the country — and several other talented players. It wasn’t an easy night for Killeya-Jones’ overmatched squad, but it was the kind of game he relishes.
The expectations are always going to be high at Kentucky, especially with this recruiting class. I think we’ll live up to it.
The opportunity to play against the best was the reason he chose Kentucky to begin with. He committed to the Cats before he knew who else would join him in the 2016 recruiting class, long before current players would make their stay-or-go decisions regarding the NBA.
Killeya-Jones didn’t want a promise of immediate playing time. He wanted a chance to earn it.
“The big thing is I knew I was going to go in there and play against the best every day,” he said. “Just watching their practices this year — those guys go at each other every day, and they’re just getting so much better.
“Iron sharpens the iron. You have to play against the best every day to get better.”
Killeya-Jones is considered the No. 24 overall player in the class of 2016, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. That’s lofty status in a class as loaded as this one, but it’s still the lowest ranking of UK’s five signees.
He’ll certainly have to fight for minutes next season, but he’ll also bring a skill set unique to his new surroundings. Killeya-Jones is one of the best offensive post players in the country, he can score from just about everywhere on the court, and he’s only getting better at it.
“I want to create matchup problems, that’s my biggest thing,” he said. “If I have a smaller guy on me, I want to be able to take him on the post and bully him. If it’s a bigger, slower guy, I want to be able to take him out to the wing. That’s what I’m working on.”
No matter who leaves after this season, UK’s next roster will boast several talented big men with immediate NBA aspirations. Calipari is also still recruiting Marques Bolden — widely considered the No. 1 center in America — and Killeya-Jones welcomes the possible addition.
In fact, he said Saturday that if Bolden is still uncommitted when they both play in the McDonald’s All-American Game next month, he’d do a little recruiting of his own.
“I’ll be in his ear a lot that week,” he said with a smile.
Killeya-Jones’ personal expectation is to “fight tooth and nail” for every available minute during his first season as a Wildcat. His larger goal is to win a whole lot of basketball games.
“The expectations are always going to be high at Kentucky, especially with this recruiting class,” he said. “I think we’ll live up to it. We’re already well prepared for what we need to do. And we’re already talking about it.
“I think we’ll do big things next year.”