The gist of the card game Uno consists of each player shedding cards in order to reach a score of 500, the total needed to win the game. But one must deal with an element of chance and circumstance to reach that point.
K.J. Santos has something in common with his favorite game, then.
“Oh god, he’s a fanatic,” his sister Ashley said.
Twenty-two games into the Missouri men’s basketball season, the sophomore has entrenched himself in the Tigers’ rotation. But it took a journey through a multitude of schools and a swarm of injuries to get there. Chance and circumstance.
This is the story of how Santos went from crutches to full health, from the darkness of constant ailment to a contributing role on a Power Five team.
Familial roots in basketball
One need not look further than Santos’ parents to understand why basketball is such a fixture in the family. K.J.’s father, Joe, played for the Puerto Rico national basketball team. His mother, Lori, played Division I basketball at Wichita State.
It figures, then, that as Joe and Lori settled down and had kids in Geneva, Illinois — about 40 miles outside Chicago — the sport brought their children closer together.
“I grew up with K.J. with a really cool bond, because we used basketball to hang out with each other,” said Ashley, a Northwestern master’s student pursuing a career in sports psychology.
“Anywhere I went, whether it was the gym or a game, he was always there. So I think of him not just as a workout buddy but also a good friend.”
Ashley, 24, was the firstborn, and she followed in her mother’s footsteps to become a high-major basketball player. After spending two years at Marquette, Ashley transferred to Louisiana Tech in 2015, where she averaged 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds across two seasons.
But Ashley’s similarities don’t end with her mother. Just like her father, Joe, Ashley played for the Puerto Rico national team.
So did her younger sister, Sydney, who played on scholarship at Oakland University (Mich.) during the 2015-16 season. Sydney recently graduated with an education degree and is now teaching and working ministry in Uganda, according to Ashley.
Then came K.J. When the kids would play hoops in the backyard, it wasn’t hard for the sisters to see a future in the sport for their brother; not just because of family history, but because of the passion he displayed early.
“I definitely did think he had a future,” she said. “Especially because I knew he was going to get bigger, stronger and taller. With how much he loved it from the start, anything associated with basketball, he’d pick it up.”
When Nate — the fourth and final Santos, a three-star 2021 recruit with offers from Creighton, Illinois and TCU — came along, the older brother naturally paid it forward. While the girls were at their respective universities, K.J. and Nate played one-on-one, games K.J. won with regularity.
“Growing up as a little kid, I don’t think I ever won a game playing against him,” Nate said. “Basketball kind of brought us together. Whenever we get the chance to see each other, we always work out together. That’s kind of that role model aspect that he’s played in my life. He always shows me stuff and gives me advice.”
A swarm of setbacks
Santos shares a life rooted in basketball with his family. He also shares with them a more unfortunate trait, perhaps a side effect of so much time dedicated to the sport: injuries.
Ashley missed her true freshman season at Marquette due to a preseason injury. She also sat out a majority of her 2012 season in high school due to health issues. Sydney had her fair share, too.
“Our two older daughters … each one of them has torn their ACL two or three times,” Lori said.
That’s why Santos’ parents had the benefit of perspective when the injuries came for their first son. And they came in abundance.
Santos spent his first two years at Geneva High School, right at home. Then came a stint at Vermont Academy, a private boarding school in Saxtons River, Vermont, where Santos broke his right foot just a few games into the season. Next, a stint at South Kent (Conn.), where Santos ultimately graduated but tore his thumb just a few games into the season.
Then, Santos ended up at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas.
Along with the questions about Santos’ health came concerns about his movement from school to school. It’s not common for a kid to play basketball at several places in high school, after all.
Lori said many asked why he couldn’t just stay in one place. Did he have problems getting along with coaches or players? What was wrong?
When she picked up the phone for an interview, the mother’s cadence told all.
“K.J.’s very nervous that I’m going to embarrass him, so I’ll try to choose my words wisely,” Lori said.
She continued: “Actually, K.J. — out of my children — he’s the shy one. So it was probably one of the best moves that we made, having him go to a prep school. He grew up. It was looked down upon, and people asked a lot of questions or criticized, but they didn’t really know the full story.”
Before the move to Vermont, Santos’ potential was bright. According to the Kansas City Star, Santos had the attention of Villanova coach Jay Wright after his first two high school seasons. But with so much time away from the court, Santos’ once-bright college prospects grew dimmer.
“If anything, it affected his recruiting,” Joe said.
After recruiting fell off, he committed to Illinois-Chicago, where he would spend his freshman year. Santos had a decent freshman season at UIC, averaging 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
Despite a promising entrance, UIC just wasn’t for him. He craved a brighter spotlight, a higher platform. So he moved schools again — this time to Jacksonville Community College — with the goal of boosting his recruiting profile.
Eventually, Santos caught the eye of Missouri assistant coach Cornell Mann. Illinois-Chicago played Oakland, where Mann was coaching, during his freshman year. Mann saw something in Santos and wanted him in Columbia when the word got out that he was transferring.
Santos was excited at the prospect of playing for the Tigers — a true Power Five team that he had the potential to play for before all those injuries. But there was reason to be hesitant.
“He wanted to examine it, too,” his father said. “He was being a little conservative with the decision. He didn’t want to just jump into it.
“I told K.J., ‘This is it.’”
Stability in Columbia
Missing the first eight games of the 2018-19 season was not part of the plan.
Last summer, Santos was healthy, getting his credits at a junior college back home and training for his arrival to Missouri. Ask anyone in the family — he was eager to play in Columbia. It was an opportunity to prove himself while playing for a school in the Southeastern Conference.
But of course, the injury bug crawled back around. Another foot injury, but this time it was the left rather than the right.
“He was not hurt here at home. He got hurt at Mizzou,” Joe said. “That happened just before the season started. And so, you know, it could’ve been him going hard again.”
Right as Santos felt prepared for a full, healthy season, another setback meant more time on the bench. More time cheerleading while his teammates played without him. Missouri got off to a decent 5-3 start without him in nonconference play, but it’s not easy to stay positive while sitting out.
“It was pretty tough,” Santos said. “There wasn’t much I could do. I was on crutches.”
Said freshman Torrence Watson: “That’s a guy who went through a lot at the beginning of the season. He expected to play a lot.”
Even when Santos made his way back onto the court — his Missouri debut came in the team’s 80-64 win over Oral Roberts on Dec. 7 — he wasn’t really back. He sat out two more games before returning Dec. 29 against Morehead State.
“It was like he was walking on a tightrope, because he needed to practice hard and get back, but he was also scared if he went too hard too early, then he would re-injure it,” his father said. “That’s why the fans saw him play one game, and he didn’t go the next game.”
Thankfully for Santos, he appears to be fully healthy now. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin has claimed that Santos is all there physically, and his regular appearances off the bench reinforce that claim. But he also knew getting into the swing of things would take time.
Indeed, Santos’ first two games against Oral Roberts and Morehead State were quiet, as he didn’t score in the first and recorded just one field goal in the second. But on Jan. 8, the sophomore gave everyone a small glimpse of what a fully healthy K.J. Santos can do.
The Tigers were blown out by then-No. 3 Tennessee that day, but Santos scored seven points and reeled in three rebounds. With nine minutes, 18 seconds left in the first half, Santos drilled a shot from downtown, giving Missouri an early 22-16 lead and showing fans why he can be an asset. His 26 minutes were a season-high.
“It’s good to just see him, first of all, handle the minutes,” Joe said. “Because Coach puts him in for whatever minutes he needs, and then he has to sort of accept the role that he’s given. Because skill-wise, everything’s not going to be back at the same time.”
“I thought it was a breaking point for me,” Santos said.
On Jan. 30, in a move to wake up an underperforming Kevin Puryear, Martin put Santos in the starting lineup against Auburn. His first start at Missouri. But in perhaps the best piece of evidence that the path Santos walks is not linear, he only played six minutes that game. He hasn’t reached seven points since that first Tennessee matchup. The sophomore hasn’t scored in three of the last four games, a stretch during which he’s only played 6.5 minutes per game.
Some of the issues relate to getting his head above water while adjusting to a new team, a new conference, a new environment. Some relate to his struggles playing a more “positionless” role and spending more time playing forward — he’s always played guard.
“He’s learning a new position, so that’s been kind of difficult to watch,” Lori said. “He’s never posted up before. He’s always played a wing. So, I see a little frustration in him.”
With eight games left in the regular season, Santos still has time to show what he can do. With Puryear struggling in his senior season, and with Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko contributing little off the bench, Santos has opportunities.
According to Watson, he has skills in store that have appeared in practice but not in games.
“You haven’t seen him shoot a whole lot of 3’s, but in practices, he’s been hitting them,” the freshman said. “He’s one of those people where if you lob it up in the air, he’s going to go dunk it. So just him being more aggressive and assertive is definitely going to help us.”
An SEC basement-dwelling Missouri could sure use the help. And when he’s not playing Uno, Santos is getting closer to becoming the player his family knows he can be.
Supervising editor is Theo DeRosa.