When five-star forward Sacha Killeya-Jones committed to Kentucky back in August of 2015, both Wildcat fans and college basketball analysts knew John Calipari found a gem. He was only ranked No. 56 in the ESPN 100, but after a stellar performance at Under Armour's All-America camp and on the AAU circuit, it wasn't a secret he would be receiving a massive spike in the rankings in the near future.
The 6-foot-11, 220-pound power forward jumped all the way up to No. 24 in the final player rankings and was eventually named a McDonald's All-American. Fans penciled him in as an early favorite for the starting lineup alongside Bam Adebayo, and he reportedly lived up to the billing in the early practice sessions.
In early work and scrimmages at the Joe Craft Center, he looked like a Trey Lyles clone, possessing a beautiful face-up game and smooth footwork in the post. His teammates raved about him, Coach Cal singled him out as a star performer, and NBA scouts saw him as a dark-horse difference maker for the Wildcats.
"I was surprised at how good Sacha Killeya-Jones was," one scout told CBS Sports' Gary Parrish following Kentucky's Pro Day last year. "He can be their X-factor if he continues to improve at this rate."
With all of the preseason praise he received, Killeya-Jones knew he made the right choice to come to Kentucky, and realized he had a golden opportunity to make an impact as a freshman.
"I knew this was the place I needed to be to reach my full potential," he said at UK Media Day. "I just want to come out here and prove I can play every day."
And then the season happened.
As the year went on, Killeya-Jones' time on the court decreased by the night. Calipari gave him chances, but he fell victim to the big stage, getting lost on defense and routinely fumbling the ball when he saw it on offense. He failed to receive a minute of playing time in 21 of Kentucky's final 23 games of the season.
On the sideline and around UK facilities, he looked down and disappointed in himself. He came in with big expectations, but his confidence slowly vanished.
Last Spring, there were obvious transfer whispers surrounding the sophomore forward, with most believing he would opt for heading closer to home in North Carolina. Looking from the outside, his future at Kentucky seemed in doubt.
Instead, he stuck through it and gave it another shot.
"This year is a big year," he told reporters before the season at UK Media Day. After a summer of working with specialists and trainers, he said he felt like a "whole different player."
And he has been exactly that.
His numbers don't jump off the page, averaging 4.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and just under a block per game, but his consistency has been crucial off the bench for Kentucky. He has earned nearly 16 minutes per game, making the most of his time on the floor in ways that don't show on the box score. His defense is improving by the game, he crashes the glass, and he seems to always be in the right place at the right time.
Most importantly, unlike last year, he's thriving on the big stage.
In two of Kentucky's biggest games, UK's loss against Kansas in the Champions Classic, and their bloodbath victory at home against Louisville, Killeya-Jones was one of the best players on the court. Against the Jayhawks, the sophomore forward finished with eight points on 4-6 shooting, nine rebounds, two assists, and three blocks in 23 minutes of action.
Afterward the loss, John Calipari said Killeya-Jones was just starting to scratch the surface of his true potential.
“He’s getting better and better,” he said. “I mean, you have to understand: He was one of the youngest freshmen in the country a year ago. He was 17. So now he’s 18 years old, basically a freshman.”
Against the Cards, SKJ finished with eight points (3-5 shooting) and four rebounds in 19 minutes of action. His presence was key in establishing the lead before halftime, and then spreading that lead in the second.
Even in UK's crushing College GameDay loss to Florida this past weekend, the Wildcat sophomore finished with seven points and three rebounds in just 12 minutes of action, proving yet again just how efficient he truly is.
He fights for tough rebounds, finishes on contested baskets in the paint, and consistently provides a massive spark of energy off the bench when Kentucky's production on both ends of the floor slows down a bit. He found his role on the team and ran with it.
Last night after Kentucky's victory over Mississippi State, Calipari said every lineup combination with SKJ this season has thrived, and the sophomore forward is set to receive yet another bump in playing time as a result.
"Every combination that played well and had good numbers had Wenyen in it. The others had Wenyen and Sacha (Killeya-Jones),” Calipari said. “Sacha was the other one. So we’re doing a rotation so those guys play more.”
And he deserves every second of that additional time on the floor.
This past offseason, many thought Killeya-Jones wouldn't even be with the team this year.
Now, his confidence is up, and he has slowly become the difference maker many the players, staff, and scouts thought he could be when he arrived in Lexington as a freshman.