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Kentucky Basketball Roster Review: The blueprint for Sacha Killeya-Jones’ success

SKJ should look to emulate the sophomore leap once made by another Kentucky big man.

NCAA Basketball: Canisius at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The first player to commit to a loaded 2016 recruiting class, Sacha Killeya-Jones left Kentucky fans with more questions than answers at the conclusion of his freshman season.

In a limited role that decreased throughout the year (until there was no role left for him), SKJ showed glimpses of the talent that made him the 25th highest rated prospect according to 247 Sports’ composite ranking.

Throughout the first ten games of the season, Killeya-Jones saw 8.4 minutes per game and displayed his patented soft touch around the basket and shooting ability outwards of 15 feet. In his little bit of exposure to fans, he showed an ability to crash the paint for offensive rebounds and put-backs.

As a preseason standout, he tallied 15 points against Bam Adebayo in the Blue-White game. Isaiah Briscoe scored 39 in that game, so take that with a grain of salt. However, it was clear that he had the offensive tools to make an impact for a team that could have used another inside presence.

This talent is what made his disappearance from the final 19 games all the more puzzling for Kentucky fans. After speculation of a transfer and many writing him off in the wake of another number one recruiting class, ‘The SKJ’ has to be coming into next season with a lot to prove.

If he trusts the process and follows the blueprint of another Calipari great, Killeya-Jones will be the answer to one of the future Wildcats’ biggest questions.

So what happened this season that shackled a five star freshman to the bench? By now, Kentucky fans know that Calipari demands a certain defensive tenacity from his role players. If your name is not Jamal Murray or Malik Monk, you’d best not be getting scored on.

Sacha has the potential to be a useful defender, especially on the help side by protecting the rim with his freaky 9’2” standing reach; one that drew buzz from NBA types.

As a freshman, however, he lacked the hustle and awareness on the defensive end to earn a longer leash from Calipari. For all of Wenyen Gabriel’s faults, he was never out of position because of a lack of motor.

Whether it was getting lost in a switch or getting backed down with ease in post isolations, Killeya-Jones seemed to stand out when he was thrown into the defensive scheme (and not in a great way). In the midst of late-season slumps from Gabriel and Isaac Humphries, it was Tai Wynyard and not Sacha who saw occasional minutes off the bench.

Did anyone predict that going into the year?

If anyone needs a reminder of the things Sacha can do on the offensive end of the floor, and who would blame you, check out the highlights from the scrimmage way back when. Again, it’s a scrimmage, but the skill is very obviously there.

Despite his disappointing freshman season, writing off SKJ is mistake. Kentucky fans are used to their five star newcomers entering the season with an immediate impact. For the majority of freshmen in college basketball, it takes a while.

Players often need time in the sped-up game to learn the tricks of the trade, especially when it comes to slowing down the talented players and more advanced sets run by high major programs (no, not you Johnny Jones).

With a year under his belt, the hope for Kentucky fans is that Sacha follows a similar development to our very own Willie Cauley-Stein. I’m not here to argue that Sacha will ever be as good as Willie ended up being after his three seasons in the program.

Killeya-Jones can, however, make a huge leap on the defensive end of the floor by following the formula that turned what Bleacher Report called a “raw, long-term prospect” in Cauley-Stein after his freshman season into the best college defender in the world.

The two have different skill sets and Willie saw much more run by this point in their careers, but there is more in common with the two big men than a hyphenated last name.

As a freshman, Willie showed the potential to be a high-level defender but like Sacha often found himself overwhelmed and out of place. Defensive box plus/minus is an advanced metric that estimates the defensive points per 100 possessions that a player contributed above that of a league-average player; Willie’s DBPM was 6.1 as a freshman.

Not bad, but he left room for improvement that he capitalized on when he boosted the metric all the way up to 10.8 as a sophomore. Sacha Killeya-Jones’ DBPM this year? 6.1. It was clear that when Humphries continued to struggle in conference play that Cal simply didn’t trust Killeya-Jones to keep from getting scored on or putting his teammates in a tough spot when screens were set up top, not unlike Willie as a freshman to a lesser extent.

It is hard to remember now, but before Willie was chasing down guards or blocking people’s souls at the rim, he was learning how to hedge screens and keep bigger centers from backing him down.

Learning how to shade defenders and hedge in the pick and roll, while being able to contest at the rim without fouling are skills that come with time. Cauley-Stein is the best example of the massive jump that can be made when sheer talent returns for a second season to be refined, one that Sacha would be wise to try and replicate.

Expecting Sacha to almost double his defensive value like Willie is asking a lot (who culminated into a world-class showcase of defensive versatility by year three), but asking for a significant increase along a similar path is realistic, and it seems he is well on his way.

After all, it was not a lack of length or athleticism holding him back. Murmurs of impressive practice play at the end of last season, if legit, may be the first flicker of light in his developmental tunnel, so to speak. Time in the gym this summer with Coach Payne, along with building up his strength so that he can bang with the likes of John Egbunu and Robert Williams is the first step in this process, and if the video below from Kentucky Basketball’s Twitter is any indication, Sacha is putting the work in.

The similarities to our favorite eccentric big-man don’t end there. Physically, the two are very comparable. The 37” vertical that Cauley-Stein recorded at the 2014 Kentucky Open Practice is the exact equal to that of Killeya-Jones’. Not to mention, they share the same 7’2” wingspan.

Sacha even beat Willie’s shuttle run time of 2.98 seconds by clocking in at 2.81 seconds (the same as De’Aaron Fox), a good gauge for lateral agility — especially helpful on defense. This all goes to point out that if Willie Cauley-Stein is an elite athlete (and he is), Sacha is at least a very good one. He is seldom discussed as a great athlete though, which is surely bound to change once fans can see all of the above given considerable playing time. He’ll never possess the end-to-end speed that made Cauley-Stein the 6th pick in the 2015 draft, but that isn’t what this team needs.

Calipari needs good enough defense from Killeya-Jones to keep him on the floor long enough for his versatile offensive game to take over. He has every measurable tool to thrive on both ends and will be better equipped to put them to use come November after a year of adjustment to the speed and ruggedness of SEC basketball.

Neither Gabriel, nor freshman P.J. Washington, are likely to play many minutes at the 5 spot. That leaves only Sacha, Wynyard, and freshman Nick Richards. I’m skeptical that Wynyard will ever play in meaningful extended minutes for the Cats. Richards is another high-upside player, whose readiness to contribute at this level is very much in question. He does not appear to possess the fluidity or scoring variety of Sacha, but brings rebounding, toughness, and rim protection — qualities that SKJ lacked last season and Cal expects from his bigs. But if Sacha can shore up his game in these areas and play with a consistent motor, he can be the balanced two-way post player that this team needs.

With a year under his belt, expect SKJ to take the reigns of the five-spot and show a huge improvement. If he comes into this season expecting to be the man, he has the all the advantages to make it happen. He clearly edges Wynyard in talent, but he also beats Richards in experience.

Averaging 8 and 5 on a team that is two-deep at every position is doable given his offensive abilities, and that’s all the Cats may need from Sacha. What they really need from Sacha is a better nose for protecting the rim. Whether or not he can use that vertical and wingspan to block 2 or 3 shots a game and change penetrating guards’ shots in the paint will determine how much of a role he’ll have.

Everyone knows he can score from the elbow-in, but if he wants to be an impactful two-way player he needs to take the same steps made by a future first team All-American in 2013–14. If he makes that kind of leap this offseason, his place in the hearts of Kentucky fans will forever be cemented. Oh, and the team might just be pretty darned good too.

Fans were bummed when Mo Bamba spurned the Cats for the Longhorns, but a motivated and refocused SKJ might be more than a consolation prize. He seems like a great kid and is someone that Cats fans will love to root for once he begins to realize some of his potential. Doubters beware—prove ‘em wrong, Sacha.

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