Something I discovered recently: Jason Preston and I are a lot alike. We spent a fair bit of time forming butt prints in chair cushions as we watched our high school teammates thrive; at least we had a front row seat. When we did receive playing time -- him for the Boone Braves, I for the Schroeder Warriors -- we’d be lucky if it was any more than a few minutes (let alone if we scored more than a few points; he averaged two, I doubt I averaged one). But we both mapped out similar plans in hopes of capitalizing on our passion for basketball and dreams to remain close to the game. We got into college, enrolled in journalism programs (Preston at the University of Central Florida, me at Marist College), sent blind emails to blogs, and prayed. That’s where the similarities stop. It’s startling (and quite cool) to realize that there are even that many parallels.
Preston eventually ditched J school for prep school on a wing and a prayer, hoping that an extended basketball career might still exist somewhere. He only bothered to give his dream path the old college, er, prep school try after his decision to tag along with some friends to an AAU tournament resulted in attention from a coach at UNC Asheville. They didn’t have any scholarships left to give, but Preston had some newfound hope. Once at Athens, Tennessee’s Believe Prep Academy, he struggled making the A team. "Here we go again" had to be the only sensible mindset to maintain. But thanks to some success while running with the school’s B and C teams, an eventual promotion to the A squad, that happenstance AAU tournament, and a convenient growth spurt, he was able to put together a competent highlight tape. Ohio University took notice. Preston’s dream was renewed.
And last Thursday, Jason Preston was drafted into the NBA, taken by the Los Angeles Clippers with the third pick of the second round. He and I definitely don’t have that in common.
At first glance, the pick is a reach. But then again, hasn’t his career always been designated as such? You don’t often hear of players ascending from a two-point per-game high school career to a B and C team prep career to a respectable NBA draft pick. The Michael Jordan story -- that he didn’t make his varsity team as a freshman -- beckons retirement; stories of players with minimal basketball experience prior to being drafted, like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, neglect to note the fact that those men are unicorns. Preston is no unicorn, just a mortal whose incredible discipline and persistence have paid off in the most incredible way.
Though he spent much of his career in the background, all but invisible, it shouldn’t be too difficult to notice him moving forward. For one, witness the hair, which bops up and down when he runs like a cross between prime Anderson Varejao and Elfrid Payton. But even more prominent, despite the slight frame he doesn’t boast so much as he lives with, is his game. In his best moments, he manages to pass with vision not unlike a rawer Jason Kidd, and he looks for lanes like a boyish Russell Westbrook, one with a much cleaner jumper and a significantly more contained gall, but that still screams "I’m getting to the freakin rim at all costs."
He proved that he could maintain that presence while playing his college ball at Ohio -- the Bobcats, a mascot with a more ferocious reputation than the teams it represents typically boast -- and burst onto the scene during the 2021 NCAA Tournament. He led the Bobcats to a Mid-American Conference title, garnering them an automatic bid to the ever-coveted Madness, and were "rewarded" with a formidable first-round foe: Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers. The defending champions didn’t exactly enter last year’s tournament looking like title contenders, but they were the four seed, and Ohio, the 13. On paper, the upper hand belonged to Virginia, and Preston’s claim to fame was bound to end up being one memorable, albeit losing effort on his way to more time in the tournament’s One Shining Moment montage than he’d actually spend playing in it.
Instead, Ohio won the game, 62-58. Preston finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists.
Not leading his team in scoring against one of college basketball’s defensive stalwarts is hardly an issue when you’re leading it in rebounds and assists -- all while standing a relatively meager 6'4. Can that translate to the pros, particularly against players like the aforementioned Westbrook, or newly-minted champion/defensive mastermind Jrue Holiday? Maybe. But the Clippers, more than likely, shouldn’t need to position Preston in that role; they’d certainly appreciate the chance to reap the benefits should he volunteer those services, though.
Across the board, he averaged 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 7.3 assists as a junior. The MAC and the NBA aren’t quite comparable, but for just a moment let’s pretend that they are: Preston would be in elite company, among a group of five pros that averaged 15, 7, and 7 last season. Those stat mates? Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. In this fantasy world, where the stats of mid-tier conference MVPs and NBA All-Stars coexist in the same orbit, Preston is on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
That’s not the case in reality. Of course it isn’t. The narrative surrounding him now isn’t necessarily that of an inevitable sleeper, nor a star, nor a bust, but it’s… quiet. The loudest chatter appears in articles focusing primarily on his inspirational journey, not his game. In their annual league-wide Draft report card, CBS Sports wrote that it’s unclear if Keon Johnson (taken 21st), Preston, or Brandon Boston (taken 51st) will be able to "significantly contribute [for the Clippers] next season. Johnson and Boston are major upside plays, however, so they could pay off down the road." The Clippers received a "B" letter grade; Preston wasn’t even included in the one-sentence analysis of the team’s "upside" selections.
I’d ask why not, though I think I can piece it together rather handily. Prognosticators are never eager to predict the successes of players who were once mid-major studs unless they are absolutely a sure thing. Damian Lillard and Steph Curry were lottery picks for a reason, while hearing Preston’s name called at all served as a minor jolt to anyone being put to sleep by the draft’s telecast. He’s hardly a thing, even less so a sure one, a player whose realistic best-case scenario is role minutes on a contender and whose worst-case path ends in a cross country move from the G League to some Lithuanian one.
But that’s no fun. Reality, that bore of a realm, is something Preston has skirted time and again and, should his streak continue, will once again. The team he joins isn’t exactly set at the point guard position, after all. There was once a universe in which Reggie Jackson -- a player Preston once blogged about and will play beside -- played point guard, but as evidenced by his recent playoff dominance, he belongs on the wing, creating his own shot, not others. That leaves Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo, who still maintains flashes of brilliance but is 35 and ends up being dangled in every deadline deal, and Yogi Ferrell. The team’s activity in free agency (which "started" Monday, but don’t tell the tamperers) will likely continue to be limited to negotiating a new deal with Leonard and picking up the occasional stray on a vet’s minimum. The door for Preston, as it were, remains wide open. One can think of no better way for a career to start.
And for it to begin on a contender is another dream. He likely won’t be asked to contribute right away, perhaps other than in Summer League or to the G League’s Agua Caliente Clippers. But when he ends up showing out on lower levels and when he shocks everyone by doing the same once pulled up to the majors, all signs point toward Preston not being among those with eyebrows arched.
"Keep grinding, @Treyballjay11!" the Clippers tweeted upon drafting the point guard. Grinding has worked out for him in the past. Something tells me it will continue to work for him now.
Later on Draft night, Preston tweeted, "NEVER LET ANYONE TELL YOU WHAT YOU CAN/CANNOT DO," a message that feels more prophetic than advisory knowing what we know about its author. When has it worked out for anyone in the past? Why would it start working out now?