SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Before Kansas set foot on the court this season, it was no stretch to say the team’s fortunes would rest on the shoulders of a blue-chip newcomer named Billy Preston.
Turns out, Preston never played a minute for KU, outside of a couple of exhibition games.
The Jayhawks did just fine without him, making their first Final Four appearance since 2012.
Preston did not do as fine.
Sidelined by Kansas after a one-car, on-campus accident in November that triggered an investigation into how he acquired the vehicle, Preston wound up in Europe in a detour that was nothing more than a dead end.
It’s a cautionary tale of a program trying to navigate the increasingly murky waters of college basketball while dodging its own unsettling headlines.
But it could also cost Preston millions.
“I don’t want to say he’s ruled out of being drafted. That’s not accurate,” says Jonathan Givony, the longtime draft analyst who now works for ESPN, in discussing Preston’s NBA prospects. “But I don’t think he’s helped his cause with the circumstance he’s in right now.”
As a McDonalds All-American and the eighth-ranked prospect in the country when he came out of Oak Hill Academy, Preston went to Kansas with the potential to make himself a “one-and-doner” — a player who goes to college for a year, then cashes in at the NBA draft.
A solid NCAA regular season, to say nothing of playing well on the outsized platform that a run to the Final Four can provide, can often send players vaulting up a draft board — from second to first round, or from the middle of the first round straight to the top.
Asked to whom he compared his game after signing with the Jayhawks, Preston told the Kansas City Star, “LeBron, LeBron James.”
“They wanted me to come in and right off the bat, make some changes,” Preston said. “Hopefully next year we can win a national championship. I just think Coach Self and the rest of the coaching staff saw the best in me.”
What Kansas coach Bill Self could not afford, however, was any more trouble — something the Jayhawks found at seemingly every turn during the 2016-17 season.
There was news that police were investigating a reported rape at the dormitory that houses the basketball team, though no suspects were identified and no charges were filed. There were drug charges, a domestic violence arrest, another report about a player striking a female student and a vandalism investigation.
Though none of those cases put KU in the crosshairs of the NCAA, neither did they put Self in the mood to be overly patient with those who couldn’t follow the simplest of rules. An NCAA investigation had laid bare the details of widespread fraud at the highest level of college basketball, and no one wanted to give credence to the notion that corners were being cut or rules were being bent.
It might have played into the coach’s decision to hold Preston out of the team’s season opener for missing curfew. Preston told Self he was late because he had illegally parked his car.
The next day, the car came up again. According to the KU athletic department, Preston’s car hit a curb on campus, resulting in minor damage to his tires. There was no property damage and nobody was hurt.
But KU held Preston out of the next game, against Kentucky, to get what Self called a “clearer financial picture” about Preston’s car.
“I’m certainly anticipating there being no issues, but I don’t want to positively say one way or another until I actually know for a fact,” Self said at the time.
Preston didn’t play another minute for Kansas.
Meanwhile, the investigation dragged on for more than two months — long enough that he finally gave up his college dreams and signed a contract to play in Europe.
Preston would play only three games for the team he signed with in Bosnia. Only two weeks before his one-time teammates started their run to the Final Four, he left because of a shoulder injury and returned home. He has been seen in San Antonio this week, hanging around in and near the Kansas team hotel.
The Associated Press reached out to Preston, his mother, his attorney and one of his high school coaches. None responded. Before this month, his mother took to social media to express her unhappiness about both the amount of time the inquiry was taking and all the speculation surrounding it.
“I don’t think they understand,” Nicole Player said in a series of tweets in January. “Billy is 6’10 240 lbs..I could’ve sent him overseas in Nov. when this started, he would’ve been an instant millionaire and a 1st round pick. I allowed the NCAA in my personal life for Kansas. Guilty people don’t do that.”
Preston is expected to attend an NBA scouting combine in May.
For the most part, though, he is a mystery to pro scouts. Most mock drafts have him going in the second round, if at all.
“We don’t have a crystal ball, so we don’t know how he would’ve played,” Givony says. “Ideally, how players build a resume is playing at places like Kansas. Having missed out on that, I don’t think you’ll get anyone to tell you that it’s ideal.”
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