Breaking down Billy Preston's McDonald's All-American Game
Although it wasn’t as hyped up or exciting as an NCAA Tournament game, I’m sure more than a few fans of Kansas basketball tuned into ESPN last night to watch five-star forward Billy Preston play in this year’s McDonald’s All-American Game.
Preston, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward with guard skills, started for the West squad which won the game by two and finished with 10 points and 3 rebounds on 4-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-2 shooting from 3-point range.
Outside of a few highlight videos, which you can check out below, this was my first extended look at Preston, which I’m sure was the case for many of you.
A couple of things immediately stood out, some good, some bad. But before we get into them, it’s important to point out one thing — Billy Preston is not Josh Jackson. He never will be, they don’t play the same way and holding him to those standards or expectations for next year or beyond will only leave you disappointed.
That’s not to say Preston won’t impress. The guess here is that he will. Big time. But Jackson, with his maturity, effort, tenacity and all-around game, was a special player, one of those that does not come along very often. While Preston will be asked to fill some of the void left by Jackson’s likely departure, he will not do so in exactly the same manner. Simply put, he’s just not quite as quick or explosive as Jackson. But that’s not a knock. Very few players are. In fact, of all the players on the floor in last night’s McDonald’s game, none really seemed to match what Jackson brought to the table for 35 games for the Jayhawks during the 2016-17 season.
And while the fact that the KU freshman’s time with the program is already over is disappointing — Jackson has not announced his intentions yet, but it will be nothing short of a major shock if he decides to do anything but enter the draft — life will go on, the Jayhawks will be good again and Preston will be part of the reason.
So, quickly, let’s get into some of the things that stood out about Preston’s game during last night’s showcase.
The first and most obvious skill that caught my eye was Preston’s jump shot. That’s one area where he will have an edge on Jackson, at least in terms of how the shot looks; it remains to be seen if he’ll shoot 38 percent from 3 like Jackson.
Not only does Preston have legit 3-point range, but he looks good (and comfortable) shooting from deep and can both step into it on the catch and create the shot off the dribble.
His step back 3-pointer from the wing was impressive in two ways — 1. He maintained his balance and rhythm throughout the shot, and 2. His length created even more separation than a guard taking a similar shot would have been able to create. If he can get and hit that shot with consistency next season, he’ll be tough for anyone to handle.
Speaking of handles, Preston definitely looks comfortable handling the basketball on the perimeter, which should make him a weapon in multiple areas. As mentioned above, not only can he create his own shot off the bounce, but he also showed the ability to use both hands and attack the paint.
Don’t confuse “attack the paint” in this case for what you came to expect from Frank Mason III and Jackson this season. But for a 6-9 forward, Preston has impressive skills in this department.
One other thing about his ability to handle the ball that stood out was that it did not appear that he only put the ball down looking to score. On a couple of occasions, Preston drove to pass, which was impressive in a game that usually does not include much passing.
A couple of other things I liked about Preston’s night: He looked comfortable in the high post area, which, if used their often, would make him a handful for opposing defenses; he was active on the glass and showed a knack for hustling and being around the ball and he always appeared to be in control of his movements while playing a fairly cerebral game.
In playing alongside 7-footer DeAndre Ayton, who picked Arizona over KU, you got a small taste of what it might be like for Preston to play with KU 7-footer Udoka Azubuike next season.
This was particularly interesting to watch on the defensive end, where Preston was able to use his length and athleticism to roam around and create problems for the offense while Ayton held it down in the lane.
Because Ayton and Azubuike differ so much as offensive players — Ayton’s a perimeter player in a 7-foot body and Azubuike loves to do his damage as close to the rim as possible — we didn’t learn much about how the two Jayhawks might work together on the offensive end, but there’s no doubt that their size and length will give KU coach Bill Self plenty of options there.
Like any high school senior or incoming freshman, Preston is not without his areas that need work. And a couple of those surfaced Wednesday night, as well.
I thought he could’ve moved a little better without the ball on offense and too often appeared to be watching the player with the ball, waiting for and expecting a pass to come his way. That makes sense for a player who is used to being the focal point of his offense wherever he plays, but won’t fly at Kansas.
And even though he was willing to share the ball, some of his decisions and passes weren’t exactly the best. My guess is that at KU this won’t hurt him too much because he won’t have the ball in his hands a ton looking to create plays for others. Instead, he’ll operate within the offense and be put in a position to make plays himself, with the only passes being extra passes for easier shots for teammates or basic ball movement stuff, both of which are areas he’s fully competent.
After signing Preston last November, Self compared him a little bit to Marcus Morris and added that he did not remember having the opportunity to coach a taller, more skilled big man.
Beyond that, Preston’s size and strength, which should only improve in the months ahead, make him a candidate to do whatever is needed down low when he’s not dominating on the perimeter.
With KU’s roster still a work in progress for the 2017-18 season — with both guys deciding if they’ll return and the coaching staff recruiting more players — it is not yet known exactly what style and system the Jayhawks will utilize next year.
What is known, though, is that, with a player like Preston on board, Self and his staff will have a ton of versatility and plenty of options.