It was Jason Preston Appreciation Week across the college basketball media landscape.
Ohio’s junior point guard captured the attention of that particular landscape on Friday when he posted a brilliant effort in the Bobcats’ 77-75 loss at then-No. 8 Illinois in a post-Thanksgiving game that was broadcast across the country. Preston outplayed the Illini’s preseason All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu, and logged a glittering stat line of 31 points, six rebounds and eight assists with no turnovers in 37 minutes.
Preston became a hit on social media as college basketball luminaries were eager to re-tell his underdog story in the early throes of a season overshadowed greatly by the nation’s unsuccessful grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Preston’s story, the short version, is as follows.
Following the death of his mother to cancer, Preston moved in with her best friend’s son. In high school, as a scrawny 6-foot, 140-pounder, he barely saw the floor and averaged two points a game as a senior. With no scholarship offers Preston was set to enroll at UCF as a regular student, but was talked into playing at AAU tournament, which led to a successful pitch to join the prep program at Believe Academy in Tennessee.
Once there, Preston saw the coach leave soon after his arrival. Preston then opted to play ‘down’ with the C-Team at Believe, and generated enough highlights that a friend was able to cut/paste them together in a highlight-reel that got posted on Twitter. Once the film hit social media after a season at Believe, Preston got two offers – from Ohio and from Longwood. The process of the offers began through direct messaging via social media.
Whew. It’s a doozy. And one that has been packaged and distributed through seemingly a million different outlets in the last week.
Preston appeared in a five-minute interview on ESPN. College basketball bloggers, broadcasters and aggregators all picked up his story. There were a slew of Zoom interviews with national outlets and regional television stations.
Preston’s messaging throughout didn’t waver.
“Everything happens for reason, and always believe in yourself,” Preston said, when asked what he’d tell a younger version of himself.
When Ohio brought in Preston more than two years ago, he wasn’t exactly embraced by a fan base that saw the addition of a non-recruited prep school player who averaged 2.1 ppg his last year in high school as an indictment on the current coaching staff.
But that head coach, Saul Phillips, and his staff saw something in that highlight reel that wasn’t reflected in any kind of recruiting profile.
“Vision and feel, for the most part,” then OU assistant and current Green Bay head coach Will Ryan said in late 2018. “He’s got those great instincts. He’s a gifted passer. He uses his body really well.
“Just a lot of those intangible things, and you saw right away he made other players better around him.”
They’re all attributes that are hard to quantify normally, especially in the midst of the star-system employed by many recruiting services.
Once in Athens, Preston quickly became a favorite for most of the roster. He was appreciative, thoughtful, grateful.
But he was also tough, talented and tenacious. The incumbent point guard at the time, Teyvion Kirk, was coming off an All-MAC Freshman campaign, and had a tendency to go right at guys in practice.
Kirk would push you – physically, verbally, mentally – and see if you’d back down. Preston never did. He never floundered, never yielded, never doubted.
By the end of Preston’s first preseason practice month, Phillips knew he had to get the freshman on the floor.
“We see it every day in practice,” Phillips, again in 2018, said. “Once he starts to be more aggressive, and starts looking for his shot, look out.”
A little too deferential at the start, Preston eventually grew into a more assertive player. The kid who wouldn’t shoot, at all, when he started at OU, eventually became a scoring threat.
OU was ready to entrench Preston as the starting PG by the time MAC play rolled around in early 2019, but a concussion delayed those plans. Preston eventually became the starter for the last eight games of the season, Kirk left the program after the year concluded and Ohio elected to not have Phillips, Ryan and the rest of the coaching staff return.
Just like at Believe, Preston was in a program where his biggest believers were suddenly no longer around.
But Preston meshed quickly with Jeff Boals, hired less than a week after the season concluded, and broke through in a big way in 2019-20 when he averaged a team-high 16.8 points and 7.4 assists per game.
He also grew, and developed physically. Now at 6-4 and 185-190 pounds, Preston’s body has caught up to the basketball IQ and ‘feel’ he’d always had.
It didn’t take Boals long to figure out what the previous Ohio staff did. Boals had Preston has his starting point guard nearly from the second he took the job.
“He makes everyone else better,” Boals said in the runup to 2019-20. “That’s what great players do.”
And now? Fresh off a showcase against one of the better guards in the country? Preston is labeled as one of the best stories in college basketball. The player who OU fans wondered ‘Why is this guy here?’ is now marked as a potential NBA draft pick; ESPN’s early season draft board had him slotted at No. 48 for the 2021 edition.
Those in Athens knew Preston was on his way up, knew he could play. The MAC found out about in a big way last season.
“Now the nation knows it,” Boals said.
Preston will do his best to stave off the extra individual attention. There will be time to talk about pro prospects and what’s next once the season is over.
“The main goal is winning a MAC championship,” Preston said. “After the season we can talk about things like that.”