When the Cavs signed Billy Preston for Las Vegas Summer League, and shortly after, to a two-way contract, it was an exciting proposition. Preston went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft, despite being the 18th-ranked prospect in the 2017 recruiting class. Now, players disappoint from high school recruiting rankings all the time, but Preston’s performance wasn’t why he wasn’t drafted. A suspension from Kansas related to college basketball’s FBI probe, and a shoulder injury suffered while playing in Bosnia in the winter, are what held Preston back. So, it stands to reason that Preston probably isn’t just your run-of-the-mill two-way player.
Preston hinted at some of that potential in Summer League. He didn’t shoot well (few actually do), but held his own on the glass as a 6-10 power forward, and played actively on defense. He looked like strong weapon in transition, and hinted at some of the ball-handling ability that made him an enticing player at Oak Hill Academy.
However, there’s still a long road ahead from looking enticing at summer league and actually being a reliable rotation player. As fun as it is to envision the Cavs essentially getting a free development year with Preston, and then signing him to a cheap deal as he blossoms into a productive player, there are holes in Preston’s game that might limit his chances to be productive at the next level, and that the Cavs and Canton Charge will have to help him work through.
Chief among those issues is his shooting, which has not been a promising trait throughout his career. One of Preston’s valuable traits could be his ability to put the ball on the deck in isolations, and that threat is going to need to be supplemented by a jumper that creates space for him off the dribble and allows him to act as a pick-and-pop threat. He did hit 5-of-13 from three at LVSL, which is 38.5 percent. That’s a good development, but also a very small sample size, and his shot form is going to need some improvement to allow him to become an average three-point shooter.
Preston needs work on both halves of his release. In the lower body, he jumps forward on his release, propelling himself out of ideal trajectory at times, which can cause his shots to sail and propel him into contests. His gather is also not always consistent, and he can sway diagonally as he brings his arms up, similar to Lonzo Ball’s release.
More concerning though, is Preston’s understanding of spacing and recognition on the floor. Preston’s always been skilled, but it’s the awareness and motor concerns that could hold him back. In Summer League, those things manifested on plays where Preston wasn’t the focal point. For example, Preston got confused when his guard rejected his screen a few times throughout summer league, and on this example, cuts off Cedi Osman’s lane along the baseline:
That can’t happen if Preston’s going to be a screener in the Cavs’ offense. It’s underappreciated, but one aspect of Tristan Thompson’s value to the Cavs through the years has been his ability to follow and react to where his ball-handler goes after he makes contact with the defender — either rolling into space, maintaining contact to create separation for a shooter, or drifting along the opposite side of the lane to create a driving lane. Preston doesn’t appear to grasp that fully, and that will create some clogged spacing in the lane early on.
Defensively, the problem is less with recognition and more with finishing plays. Ideally, Preston is going to use his athleticism to defend multiple positions along the perimeter, act as a weak side shot-blocker, and crash the glass. But while he had his moments as a defender in Summer League, he also had many possessions where he either gave up on or didn’t recognize the need to finish a play. His closeouts were generally very subpar:
And his transition defense should be.......familiar......to Cavs fans.
Preston has a baseline of skills that deserves an NBA look, and his shooting can be improved upon. But his understanding of the game and effort level have been issues since high school, and after missing a year and with everything to prove, it was disappointing to see that stuff rear itself again in Summer League. Preston will get his chances this year, both in the G-League, and with Cleveland. But if he can’t solve these issues, his time in the NBA is going to be short-lived.