In many ways, Billy Preston appears to be just another NBA draft prospect with lofty dreams. At 6-feet-10 he is lean and lanky, and when he stretches his arms wide he covers 7 feet 2 inches from fingertip to fingertip. Such a wingspan would make him a valuable asset in the NBA as a rebounder, shot blocker and finisher. He also has the pedigree, dating back to his high school days when Preston ranked as a five-star recruit who became a McDonald’s all-American despite his tendency to move from state to state.
And yet, despite his measurements and basketball resume as an amateur, the 20-year-old Preston carries a certain mystique. Every time he walks into an NBA gym — and by the end of this pre-draft process, he will have auditioned for half the league — it is the first time that most teams have seen him in a true basketball setting in over a year.
The Washington Wizards had their chance to evaluate one of the draft’s biggest mysteries Wednesday in a workout that also included Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Elijah Brown (Oregon), Nana Foulland (Bucknell), Tyler Nelson (Fairfield) and Corey Sanders (Rutgers).
“I kind of figure why they say ‘mystery.’ No one has really seen me play,” Preston said about the label that has trailed him through this process. “So I’m just trying to get the opportunity to come in front of all these teams and show what type of player I am, person I am, and the kind of man I can be.”
In January, under the cloud of an NCAA investigation, Preston left Kansas after not playing a single game as a freshman. Preston, who likely would have been a starting big man for the Final Four-bound Jayhawks, attracted the wrong kind of attention after reportedly being involved in a single-car accident in a Dodge Charger. The university as well as the NCAA started an investigation into the car’s origin. While serving his suspension, Preston signed a contract with a team in Bosnia but left to rehabilitate a shoulder injury only three games into his professional career.
At the NBA Draft Combine in May, he conducted interviews with 10 teams. Those decision-makers wanted to know more about what happened in Kansas than his brief stint with BC Igokea of the Adriatic League.
“It’s not a situation I’m not uncomfortable talking about,” Preston said. “At the end of the day, what happened happened. So I’m going to be honest about everything and tell the truth. Just be a man. But I have no problem about it. I get tired of people asking about it, but at the same time I don’t have a problem when I get asked … about it.”
Preston returned stateside around the start of March Madness and paid close attention to his former teammates as they advanced through the bracket. He even traveled to San Antonio to watch the Jayhawks’ national semifinal against Villanova. As Kansas lost to the eventual champions, Preston could only think about what might have been.
“I wish I could be out there. It was exciting to see my teammates, my coaches, and just be with them over that course of time, but it was sad to see how the game went and sad just me watching, seeing myself out there and making a difference,” Preston said. “Whether it was plays on the offensive end, defensive end. That’s kind of what I was doing. I was watching the game and picturing myself out there on the floor. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but that was kind of what was going through my mind.
“I think if I was out there,” Preston said, “we would’ve won the game.”
Preston’s college career does not exist. He appeared in less than a handful of games in an overseas development league. Then after being invited to the combine, Preston took the advice of his agent and did not participate in the five-on-five scrimmages in front of NBA coaches and executives. For teams to remind themselves of Preston’s on-court ability, they will have to wrangle up game footage from his days playing at high schools in California and Texas and at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.
Yet this dearth of recent accomplishments serves as motivation for Preston.
“I go hard,” Preston said while wearing an official NBA Draft Combine T-shirt after his workout with the Wizards. “Every time I step on the court I push myself to my limits.”
The Wizards possess the Nos. 15 and 44 picks in the draft. After completing so many workouts, Preston does not have a definitive view of where he might land and believes he has a chance to be anywhere from a mid-first-round selection to a late second-rounder. Where he’ll go is a mystery, but Preston wants one thing to be certain.
“I think I’m in a different place now,” Preston said. “I feel confident as a player. I’m not the same person I was at that time.”