Billy Preston holds key to Kansas overcoming roster imbalance
Landen Lucas was forced to the bench by foul trouble in the second half of a second-round NCAA Tournament game against Michigan State last March. Dwight Coleby made sure Lucas wasn't missed, contributing three points, four rebounds, a steal and a burst of feel-good energy.
Who fills that role for Kansas this coming season in the event that sophomore Udoka Azubuike has to buy time on the bench nursing foul trouble in a second-round tourney game?
Better question: Might Coleby have been talked into staying if William & Mary transfer Jack Whitman had never come to Kansas as a graduate transfer? We'll never know the answer to that but do know that Coleby will play for Western Kentucky and Whitman won't play for Kansas, having quit the team without making it through the summer, thus forgoing an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy. Even Evan Maxwell, a Liberty transfer who was in the Kansas program from May to December of last year, lasted longer than that. Maxwell will suit up for Illinois Wesleyan this coming season.
Highly skilled freshman Billy Preston, who considers himself a point forward at heart, has the second-biggest body on the KU roster at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, smaller only than Azubuike, who checks in at 7-foot, 280. After that, Mitch Lightfoot (6-8, 210 and counting) and Svi Mykhailiuk (6-8, 205) stand the tallest and weigh the most. Lightfoot brings enough toughness to battle bigger bodies and wants to be 225 by the start of the season. Svi is a perimeter player who attempted 176 3-pointers and 104 2-pointers last season. He averaged three rebounds in 27.3 minutes and isn't a natural fit to defend any of the five positions.
KU still has a scholarship available. The best-case scenario has Marvin Bagley III, a 6-10, 220-pound potential overall No. 1 NBA draft pick, filling it, but that's considered a long shot at this point for a number of reasons. First, Bagley would have to successfully reclassify from the Class of 2018. Second, he would have to choose Kansas. Most who follow recruiting closely seem to think Duke is at the top of his list. Bagley has visited Duke and reportedly has visits scheduled with Arizona and USC. Kentucky, UCLA and Kansas also are on his list.
Barring landing Bagley, the next-best outcome lies in recruiting a reserve post player from junior college or a graduate transfer. At this point, most if not all of those prospects have committed elsewhere.
Azubuike's injury last season caused Josh Jackson to play out of position. A natural small forward, he thrived at power forward, stayed in the moment and trained his focus on winning. Most one-and-done talents have an eye on auditioning. He didn't. If Preston is needed to play on the block more than anticipated, can he keep his eye glued on winning as well as Jackson did?
Agile, quick, a strong ballhandler and blessed with a soft shooting touch and ideal basketball physique, Preston will have ample opportunity to show his perimeter skills when Azubuike is on the floor with him. When Azubuike sits and Preston is most needed inside, NBA scouts will take note of what's inside him by studying whether at those moments he does what's best for the team or what he perceives as what's best for his draft stock. It's not easy convincing teenagers that acting in the team's best interests does more to impress the scouts.
The answer to whether Preston can take the unselfish path chosen by Jackson will go a long way toward determining just how much Kansas will miss Coleby, who averaged 1.5 points and 1.8 rebounds and left for a place where his role will expand considerably.