Not even a year ago, Billy Preston was primed and ready to take the world of college basketball by storm.
A McDonald’s All-American standout and five-star recruit out of the famed Oak Hill Academy, the freshman phenom dubbed by some as “Baby Bron” had his sights set high with the Kansas Jayhawks.
Almost instantly, Preston drew people’s attention with his sheer size and length. In each of the team’s first three exhibition games of the season, he scored in double figures and pulled down at least three rebounds. But he really turned heads with one play against Pittsburgh State.
Four minutes into the game, the Jayhawks were up by 10 and forced a turnover on the defensive end. Seeing the miscue happen in action, Preston got a head start on a fast break opportunity and received a pass from Devonte Graham on the right side of the forecourt.
What happened next sent the crowd at Allen Fieldhouse into a state of shock. With only two dribbles and a couple of long strides, Preston literally glided into the paint, evaded his defender and thumped a one-hand slam with authority. He flexed after the fact and looked at the sea of blue as everybody in attendance let out a collective, ‘OHHHH!’
Considering this was only the second game of the “pre-season” for Kansas, things looked as if they were only getting started for Preston. Little did we know he would only suit up one more time for Bill Self before the entire situation went awry.
On November 8, 2017, Preston was involved in a single-car accident on the school’s campus. He was not hurt, but there was damage to the vehicle and Self reported it to administration. It was ruled that they needed a “clearer financial picture” regarding the car itself.
On top of all of that, Preston missed curfew and a class. Six days after the incident, Self announced that he was to be held out until the situation was figured out. A month passed, then two months. Needless to say, a resolution was never reached. Aching to move past the off-court distraction and just play ball, he reached a tough, but necessary decision.
Preston announced on January 20 that he would be leaving the team and joining the Adriatic League’s BC Igokea in Bosnia. However, things didn’t quite go according to plan overseas, either. With a lingering shoulder injury that bothered him for weeks, he left the ball club after just three games.
Once a top name coming out of high school with loads of potential, Preston’s path to the pros became as difficult as anybody’s. There wasn’t much game tape. Nobody had seen him play a single college game against top opponents.
He had played only six games in the span of six months. In order to increase his chances of getting picked in the 2018 NBA Draft, he attended the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago (he did not participate in games).
Unfortunately, after all of that, Preston didn’t hear his name called on draft night. There was a team, though, that pounced on an opportunity to bring him in as soon as possible.
CAVALIERS SHOW INTEREST
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who had set a new direction to get “back in the player development business” as general manager Koby Altman put it, were one of the first organizations to call Preston and his agent, Jason Martin.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar conversation for either party since the team met with Preston for an interview at the combine.
“He wasn’t able to play and we didn’t bring him in for a workout,” Cavaliers assistant general manager Mike Gansey told Basketball Insiders.
“But someone that’s 20 years old, 6-10, can shoot, dribble, pass, do a lot of things with his versatility – with the way the game is going, he was a guy that kind of stood out for us. When he went undrafted, he was one of our first calls.”
Gansey and the scouting department had been enthralled with the 20-year-old forward for quite some time.
Whether it was at the McDonald’s All-American game, a practice or exhibition game at Kansas or even internationally in Europe, they had kept a close eye on Preston –a player they pegged as an early second-rounder and even potentially a top-20 talent “if all the stars were aligning and he would’ve actually played.”
Gansey revealed to Basketball Insiders that he had been in contact with Martin for pre-draft workouts during Cleveland’s playoff run, but could never set something up due to the timing and the NBA Finals.
“He’s so versatile, he can stretch the floor, he’s got some athleticism,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “There’s just not many guys like that at 6-10, 6-10-and-a-half laying around, especially in college or the G-League.”
Soon after the draft, Cleveland’s Director of G-League Operations Brendon Yu picked up the phone. He and the staff extended an invitation to Preston to play for the franchise’s summer league team in Las Vegas and the offer was accepted.
Preston signed a two-way contract with the Cavaliers not long after. Gansey believes that the early interest they showed helped them ultimately land the former five-star prospect.
“Sometimes that helps,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “We were lucky to bring him in and sign him to a two-way before we even played a game. Saw him in a couple practices and showed us enough where we felt comfortable doing that.”
“As far as what they’re expecting of me, I haven’t got that far into talking with anybody or to that point,” Preston told Basketball Insiders of the deal at NBA Summer League.
“But as far as what I think I can bring to the organization, a lot of versatility just offensively and defensively. I think me being 6-9, 6-10, able to do a little bit of it all. That’s something that will be a key part of just playing both sides of the floor.”
GETTING BACK INTO THE SWING OF THINGS
That’s where the intrigue lies with Preston. Between the front office and the man himself, the 6-foot-10 height was mentioned incessantly, and rightfully so. His body frame screams matchup nightmare and his athleticism speaks for itself.
With that said, sitting out for as long as he did, it isn’t going to all come back at once. Getting re-acclimated to the game itself and experiencing a whole different level of competition are difficult tasks to accomplish—so working on everything is going to be the area of focus.
“I mean, he really didn’t play for a whole year, so even summer league you could see some rust coming off him,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “But I think he needs to get stronger. Physically he’s got a great body – I think he could put on some weight and get a lot stronger.
“I thought in Vegas his handle needed to get tightened up a little more because he can go make a play at 6-10 that not many people can do. Continue to improve on his three-point shooting. I think he’s a good enough shooter and he’s capable, but not a knockdown guy. I think his passing and decision making can be better as well.”
Yu agrees with Gansey in evaluating his performance in Las Vegas.
“It’s just kind of re-learning and getting NBA speed and playing against those types of athletes and length,” Yu told Basketball Insiders. “He’s never done that before, so it’s going to be a learning process. But the talent is definitely there, so we’re excited about that.”
As for Preston himself, he was happy with the experience because it allowed him to get back on the floor and play the game he loves.
“Mainly me just learning from my teammates and the coaches and just getting a feel for this level of competition,” Preston told Basketball Insiders. “I think game-by-game I’m getting better, so it’s really just me getting my feel and just getting my rhythm back. Getting more comfortable and getting my confidence back up to the player I know I can be.
“I think for me it’ll be more just getting up and down, running the floor more, reading plays, just learning how to slow down a little bit. That’s probably it for me. It’ll probably be just to slow myself down, pace myself, see the floor a little more. And it could be a little something on the defensive end too.”
While scouting him last year, Gansey had conversations with the Kansas staff about Preston’s potential as a defender. They told him that he could be “so good” and always wondered why he wouldn’t buy into it, and in practices “they wished they got more out of him.”
Cleveland caught a glimpse of what can happen when Preston puts forth his maximum defensive efforts on in Las Vegas, which is why they’re so high on him.
“That was the surprise of summer league,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “He can move his feet when he wants to. He’s 6-10, he’s got good hands, good instincts.
“I think the versatility being able to play that four, three position in the league now where those guys are so valuable and he can stretch the floor as well and put it down – there’s a lot of things he can do and it’s just putting it all together I think.”
KEEPING THINGS CONSISTENT
Here’s the catch—summer league only lasts for 11 days. An entire season spans for over half of a year. Preston has never gone through the rigors of an NBA campaign or one in the G-League for that matter. It will be a huge adjustment for him.
But luckily for Preston, he has a friend to go through his rookie season with, who, along with head coach Tyronn Lue, admittedly attracted him to the Cavaliers.
“I played with Collin [Sexton] just in high school,” Preston told Basketball Insiders. “I played with him so I kinda already knew him and we kinda already had a feel for each other’s game. And just knowing the background of the team, just knowing the history of it. It was something I couldn’t say no to, so that was probably it on that end.”
As one of the top workers on the team already in year one, Gansey is hopeful that Sexton’s dedication will rub off on Preston.
“I think just being in the gym with him every day – being one of the younger guys, they were the same class, McDonald’s – I think maybe learn from him a little bit,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders.
“It’ll be a process, but having him here now, he doesn’t have to worry about school or any of that. Just to focus on basketball. We have all the coaches, all the staff. I think he’ll only benefit from it.”
Neither training camp nor the NBA season has started yet, but Gansey says Cleveland’s hope for Preston is for him to eventually convert his two-way contract into a normal one. Because of how young he is, there is no rush at all. They want to make sure they get this right.
Preston’s road to this point was anything but conventional, so that in itself shows how driven he was to get here. There’s a persistence and grind-it-out mentality necessary to make it in this league, and he just might have it.
“The past is the past,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “We’re in the present now. I think he really took a step in Vegas being with us. He was up and down, but I thought he showed enough flashes and played well enough for us.
“We just hope now that he’s in our system, our culture, that we can bring out the best of him and slowly make him better on and off the floor and hopefully, be a part of the Cavs main roster at some point.”
Preston understands his path to the pros was unorthodox. Yet, still, here he is—starting his career with a championship organization from square one.
“It was rough,” Preston told Basketball Insiders. “A lot of up and downs. But at the end of the day, I still managed to work to get myself here. I left it in God’s hands. Through all the adversity, it’s just a blessing to be here and still be able to play.”
Above all else, Preston is the man in charge of himself. There’s no single objective that he’s looking at as an upcoming rookie, nothing skill wise either. It simply comes down to one word.
“Work,” Preston told Basketball Insiders. “Do whatever they have me or want me to do to contribute to the team.
“I don’t really have any set goals for myself yet, but like I said –I’m in control of my work ethic and that’s one thing that I’ll always bring to the table every time I step on the floor, so whatever they want me to do, I’ll do whatever it is.”
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