Preston declares for the 2021 NBA Draft, could return

Ohio’s Jason Preston (0) celebrates with teammates prior to the Bobcats’ game against Creighton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 22, 2021. (Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The Bobcats have been waiting for Jason Preston to make a decision, and on Monday he did.

Kind of.

Preston, a junior point guard with a remarkable backstory, declared his intention to enter the 2021 NBA Draft. The lone caveat being that he will maintain his collegiate eligibility while doing so, per a statement released on his behalf by the Ohio University men’s basketball official Twitter account.

Preston had until May 30 to declare early entry into the NBA Draft, set this summer for July 29. Assuming Preston does maintain his college eligibility – and not sign with a professional agent – he would be allowed to withdraw his name from draft consideration before an NCAA mandated deadline and conceivably return to Ohio for the 2021-22 season.

The NCAA has yet to set the deadline for the ’21 Draft, due in part to the NBA’s altered off-season calendar stemming from the havoc wrought in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, the NCAA deadline to withdraw comes 10 days after the NBA Draft Combine ends; the Combine is scheduled this year for June 21-27, meaning Preston (presumably) would have until June 27 to withdraw and return to college basketball.

Whether he will return or stay in the draft depends in large part on what he learns from professional talent evaluators over the next two months. At 6-foot-4 and still developing his game – Preston was never a full-time starter in a high-school or higher program until 2019 at OU – it’s expected he has more jumps to make after developing from unknown to perhaps the best player in the Mid-American Conference.

Preston averaged 16.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game in 2020-21, and helped lead Ohio to a 17-8 overall record, the MAC Tournament championship and a win over Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite appearing in just eight regular-season MAC games, Preston earned First Team All-MAC honors, and later won the MAC Tournament MVP.

Preston averaged 16.8 points with 7.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore in 2019-20. He missed time due to a hamstring injury and COVID-19 protocol last season.

Drawing some preseason draft buzz, Preston’s name exploded across the college basketball ecosystem early in the season after posting a 31-6-8 stat line in a close loss at then No. 8 Illinois and preseason All-American Ayo Dosunmu on Nov. 27. Preston was the one Bobcat every analyst when the Bobcats won the MAC and drew Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Preston had 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists as OU upset Virginia in the first round, but had his worst shooting game of the season in the second round – a 72-58 loss to Creighton when he finished with a season-low 4 points on 1-of-10 shooting.

Preston said he would think about his “future” after the tournament loss when asked what he would consider when thinking about entering the draft.

“I’ll take it day by day, pray about it, talk to God about it, talk to Coach (Jeff) Boals about it. We’ll weigh our options, and we’ll see what we’ll do,” Preston said on March 22.

Boals, about to enter his third year with the Bobcats and maybe his first without Preston, said much the same thing in March.

“Like I said, he’s going to have a decision to make here. We’ll take some time off, regroup, see where he’s at mentally and talk out, communicate, and see what happens with him,” Boals said.

IF Preston elects to withdraw his name and return to Ohio, the Bobcats are projected to return all five starters and every member of the eight-player rotation Boals utilized down the stretch.

Preston has room to get better; he can add more weight and strength, and develop consistency at the foul line for example. But depending on the number of workouts he’s able to add during the pre-draft process and the quality of the evaluations he’s able to receive, he may learn enough to decide to go to the pro ranks.

The options for Preston are as follows:

  1. See the draft process through to the end and become a pro no matter what.
  2. Go through the pre-draft process, get evaluated and opt to return to college and Ohio
  3. Go through the pre-draft process, get evaluated and opt to return to college and go elsewhere.

Ohio fans are familiar with the third option as that was the route that was taken by Jaaron Simmons in 2017. After entering, and then withdrawing, his name for the NBA Draft, Simmons took a graduate transfer to Michigan. Preston, given the no-penalty transfer waiver offered by the NCAA this year, could opt do something similar if he desired.

The Bobcats have already lost three players this season to the transfer portal, and have added three players in return. Gone are centers Rifen Miguel (who has signed with Troy) and Nolan Foster (future destination unknown), and forward Mason McMurray (unknown).

Last week, Ohio had announced the official signings of a pair of 6-8 forwards in Ijomah ‘IJ’ Ezuma out of Hargrave Military Academy and A.J. Clayton out of Philo High School in Muskingum County in Ohio. Ezuma could contribute right away after a year at the high-level prep school. Clayton averaged 23.6 points per game last winter for the Electrics and is a two-time MVL Player of the Year, but moved up his classification by a year (from 2022 to 2021); he might need a bit longer to develop.

But the Bobcats have that covered as well. Jason Carter, a three-year starter at Ohio and All-MAC talent before taking a grad transfer to Xavier, is transferring back to Athens after the spending the last two seasons with the Musketeers. Carter averaged more than 15 points per game while at Ohio, including 16.5 as a junior in 2018-19, and started 20 of 21 games with averages of 5.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game last season at Xavier.

Carter, who played with current Ohio standouts in Preston and Ben Vander Plas back in ’18-19, transferred shortly after Boals’ hiring two years ago.

As for Preston, will he return? Depends on what he wants and values most. He’s a player who believes in himself first and foremost, and likely won’t be deterred by all but the harshest pre-draft evaluation. He’s bet on himself before and it’s worked out, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided now was the time to move on.

However, Preston has enjoyed his time with the program at an exceptionally high level over the last two years despite (at times) extremely trying circumstances. He has a sense of loyalty that is uncommon, and has developed strong bonds within the program. His last game is one I know he’d like to scrub off the ledger, so to speak, and he may want to see just how good or how far the Bobcats can go next season.

If Preston’s time in Athens as a player is indeed over, Boals said it was worth it.

“I’m just a small part of what he’s done and what he’s going to do,” the coach said in March. “Biggest thing is I’m thankful I was able to coach him for a couple years.”

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