GREENSBORO, N.C. – Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) forward Billy Preston is 19 spots too low with his No. 20 overall ranking in the ESPN 100, at least as far as he’s concerned.
“There aren’t 19 players in the country better than me,” Preston said. “I just don’t see that.”
He certainly has a case: At 6-foot-10, Preston has the skills of a polished guard, a solid jump shot and the type of athleticism that would make most NBA players green with envy.
“I’ve never coached a player at his size with his skills,” said Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, who has coached multiple NBA All-Stars such as Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. “I don’t think he’s fully aware of how good he is, but he’s starting to realize it. He’s just happier now.”
Preston looked plenty jovial in the No. 2 Warriors’ 84-55 victory against Cannon School (Concord, N.C.) Saturday at the Phenom Hoops National Showcase. In two games at the event, Preston averaged 20 points and 15 rebounds a game.
“I’m finally in a place where I’m having fun and not worried about anything but school and basketball,” Preston said. “Just being able to say that is big for me. I haven’t had that in a long time.”
Oak Hill is Preston’s fifth school in the last four years.
Last season, he played at Advanced Prep International (Dallas), which had issues with player eligibility after the season concluded. That followed time as a sophomore at Prime Prep in Dallas following a midseason departure from Redondo Union in Southern California. (His mother said at the time that the move away from Redondo Union was an academic issue related to block scheduling and not related to basketball.) He spent his freshman year at St. John Bosco in Bellflower, Calif.
Preston readily admitted that the constant relocating came with a negative connotation that’s been hard to shake.
Still, that hasn’t stopped college basketball heavyweights such as Indiana, Kansas, Syracuse and USC from applying the full-court recruiting press. Preston has tweeted that he plans to announce his decision this week.
“I definitely feel like I’m misunderstood, but, at the same time, I understand why people think what they think,” Preston said. “I can’t worry about what other people think, though. Things are just different for me now. I always wanted to play for a coach that I would do anything for and I’ve definitely found that in Coach Smith.”
The Warriors are the defending DICK’s Sporting Goods High School Nationals champions, and Smith said, in order to repeat, the Warriors will rely heavily on Preston.
“I used to watch him last year and he just wasn’t engaged and he’d just go through the motions, but I told him before he came, ‘You can’t play like that if you want to play for me,” said Smith, who eclipsed 1,000 wins last season. “Since he’s been here it’s been like night and day. He’s a great kid and he really just wants to get better. We’re gonna need him engaged and productive if we want a shot at doing what we did last season.”
Preston said even hearing that he’s needed from Smith gives him “confidence I’ve never had before.”
In the last three months since his arrival, Preston said he’s added 10 pounds of muscle, revamped his diet and improved his jump shot and agility.
“Coach Smith is a legend and he’s just someone I can look up to in a lot of different ways,” said Preston. “When I’m playing I don’t want to let him or my teammates down. I haven’t always been able to say that, but I know he cares about me. That’s big for me.”
It’s also made the sacrifices he’s had to make at Oak Hill more bearable.
“Oak Hill is really just about books and basketball,” Preston said. “No cellphones, no reception, my mom who’ve I’ve been around every day my whole life isn’t around, nothing. It’s just woods and mountains and the gym. It’s made me grow up a lot. It took me a while to find the right situation, but now that I have everything I went through was worth it.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY