LEXINGTON, Ky. – Six weeks ago, Kentucky freshman Sacha Killeya-Jones’ coach was questioning his toughness and squinting hard to see what he might eventually become.
“He’s skilled, but he’s got a long way to go,” John Calipari said then. “Knee’s been bothering him, so I’m hoping that’s (because) that growth plate is still open; it would be nice if he gets to 7-foot tall, but he has tendonitis, which is slowing him down.
“I’ve had to tell him, ‘You understand, if you don’t practice you’re not going to play here, right? Like, someone told you that, right? Like, if your knee really hurts and you can’t practice, it’s OK, but you will not get in the game. Right? Like, you know that, right?’ ”
Calipari told Killeya-Jones that 75 percent of NBA players deal with tendonitis in their knees and ankles, but they fight through the pain. That was an early challenge to the 6-foot-10 forward, and Killeya-Jones has apparently answered it.
Fast-forward to the Wildcats’ media day on Thursday, and listen to the change in Calipari’s tone:
“Sacha’s body is not the same as it was two and a half months ago,” he said. “They’re so young that it’s like putting water on a flower. They just start to blossom. Look, I knew Sacha was good – I wouldn’t have him here if I didn’t think he was good – but I didn’t know he was this good.”
So what happened? For starters, Killeya-Jones took advantage of a full summer in Kentucky’s strength and conditioning program and bulked up from 218 pounds in June to about 230 now. He added 60 pounds to his bench press and increased his vertical leap to 37 inches.
That, and practicing every day against a frontcourt full of other future pros, helped transform his game.
“I’ve gotten a lot better since I’ve been here. I’ve gotten a lot stronger, a lot bigger,” he said. But more importantly, and he means this in a positive way: “My mental has gotten crazy.”
Mental toughness. Killeya-Jones has discovered he has more of that than he realized when he was barely breaking a sweat while dominating high school competition. He breaks a lot of sweats at Kentucky, where he’s just one of six former 5-star recruits on the roster.
In fact, he’s the least-heralded member of the Wildcats’ freshman class despite being ranked the No. 24 prospect in the country by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been like nothing I’ve ever been a part of before,” Killeya-Jones said. “It really feels like an All-Star game every time – but everybody’s going competitively. I’m just getting used to battling every day. The mental is the biggest thing for me.”
As Calipari reminded him, that includes playing through aches and pains, knowing the difference between being hurt and being injured. And recognizing that there is no time to lick minor wounds when your teammates are scratching and clawing for minutes.
“Before, I was like, ‘My knees are hurting,’ and I felt sorry for myself,” Killeya-Jones said. “I had a night where I worked out, came back to the room and said, ‘Why do my knees have to hurt?’ But then I was like, ‘Why am I complaining?’ So then I just started going harder in practices every day.
“I was like, ‘OK, my knees are going to hurt for two hours. Cool. I’ll go to treatment afterward and I’ll be fine.’ So once I figured that out, coming in here working as hard as I can, everything started clicking.”
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Now that his body isn’t holding him back and his toughness is no longer in question, Killeya-Jones’ natural gifts are starting to shine. He’s a versatile big man who can handle the ball, step out and swish jump shots, lose his man with smooth moves in the paint and protect the rim with a 7-foot-2 wingspan.
But brains might be his most impressive trait.
When Calipari asks the veteran players to demonstrate a new concept to the freshmen, Killeya-Jones has an uncanny ability to “get in and do it perfectly,” sophomore center Isaac Humphries said. “I saw it in the first practice. He was just so switched on and he knew exactly what to do, which makes me think he’s got a high basketball IQ, and that goes a long way.”
Asked the last time a player surprised him this much – outperforming his initial expectations – Calipari named Brandon Knight, Patrick Patterson, James Young and Josh Harrellson. Those first three were drafted No. 8, 14 and 17 overall in the NBA, and Harrellson went from “I never thought Josh would play” to second-round pick.
That reputation is exactly why Killeya-Jones, a one-time University of Virginia commitment, reached out to Kentucky, not the other way around.
“(He said), ‘I want to be in a program that has had guys like me who have grown and have been taught and been coached and challenged and made it,’” Calipari said. “So now he’s finally pushing through knees. He’s not trying to say, ‘I can’t go.’ He’s staying up with the pack.
“He’s now been challenged by other really good players (and) we’ve got guys looking at me going, ‘Coach, he’s really good.’”