Billy Preston: How a Future 1st-RD NBA Draft Pick at Kansas Ended Up in Bosnia

Tully Corcoran@@tullycorcoranSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 20, 2018

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 9: Billy Preston #23 of the Kansas Jayhawks watches teammates warm up prior to a game against the Iowa State Cyclones at Allen Fieldhouse on January 9, 2018 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Wednesday night, Billy Preston's mother, Nicole Player, said she was as in the dark as anybody about what was going on with her son and the NCAA.

In early November, Preston, a presumptive starter at power forward for Kansas, was involved in a single-car accident on campus in Lawrence, which triggered an investigation into what Jayhawks head coach Bill Self described as a "clearer financial picture" on the vehicle.

Nearly two-and-a-half months passed without any new information coming to light. Nothing about the car or the investigation. Nothing, even, about Billy Preston himself, the only child of Player, a self-described Los Angeles street kid who gave birth to Preston at age 19 and watched him grow into a prolific artist, a skilled skateboarder and a McDonald's All-American basketball player bound almost certainly for the NBA draft after a year at Kansas.

But Wednesday night, there was something new.

"We finally were able to obtain counsel," Player told Bleacher Report. "And that's kinda where we are now."

By Saturday morning, the Kansas chapter of the Billy Preston saga was over. Through an attorney, Preston negotiated a contract with BC Igokea, a professional team in Bosnia and Herzegovina, formally putting an end to his amateur status and guaranteeing at least one lifelong dream would go unrealized.

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"His dream has been to get to the NCAA tournament," Player said. "That has always been his dream since he started playing basketball."

Officially, Preston's college basketball career never existed. He played three exhibition games, going 14-for-16 from the field for 33 points and 11 rebounds in 46 minutes. His presence, sitting on the bench in nice shirts and eyeglasses as a healthy scratch all season, tantalized.

Preston (No. 23) at the McDonald's All-American Game
Preston (No. 23) at the McDonald's All-American GameDavid Banks/Getty Images

Any college basketball team would love to have a 6'10" player who can dribble like a guard and score from anywhere on the floor, but it just so happens this is a rare season in which Kansas could use pretty much any 6'10" guy.

For most of this season, Kansas has played four guards and relied on just two post players, center Udoka Azubuike and forward Mitch Lightfoot. Depth has been nonexistent, and it has turned the Jayhawks into one of the least-balanced teams of the Self era.

The Jayhawks pressed on, week after week, with Self periodically issuing cryptic updates that generated little or no investigative interest from the local or national press. Player said a few reporters had reached out but mainly just the ones she had already gotten to know on the recruiting trail.

Nobody seemed to know, or be willing to say, what this was all about. So into that informational vacuum flowed all manner of speculation and innuendo.

This annoyed Player, who has spent some time on Twitter shooting them down, but the waiting was the hardest part. Self acknowledged early on that Preston was having a hard time with it, and Player elaborated Wednesday.

"Ironically, even with me being a young parent, even with me being from the streets of L.A., we've never had a gray area," she said. "I've always made sure Billy's life was stable. I've always made sure he was well-protected. And now we're at a point where I can't.

"I don't have the reach to do so. My umbrella is not big enough to shield him from everything. I try, but it's just not. I think it has a toll on anybody. At first, it was just stress. And we don't have anything to hide, but it was just stress. And stress eventually turning into depression, you know?"

Player had introduced the idea of Preston going overseas, writing on Twitter that he could have been a millionaire already if he wanted to. Wednesday, she said that wasn't what Billy wanted most.

"His thing is, 'I may not have gotten to play in any regular-season games yet'—and he always says yet—'but I know I'm gonna be there,'" Player said. "We could have taken the easy route and said enough is enough, let's go. But he likes school, and Coach Self has believed in him, and Coach [Kurtis] Townsend and the entire staff have believed in him, and he believes in himself—and we know we haven't done anything wrong, so let's continue to fight."

What changed between Wednesday night and Saturday morning remains unclear. Messages from Bleacher Report to Player on Saturday were not returned, and so into another vacuum comes a swirl of rumors and hot takes.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

A little more clear is Preston's status as a prospect. When he was in high school, most scouting services had him among the top 20 players in his class—his 7'1" wingspan, soft touch and smooth, versatile offensive game being the major selling points. The knocks are that he's not much of a defender and lacks a back-to-the-basket game. Since Preston hasn't played this year, the mock drafts don't seem to know what to do with him.

He'll go to Bosnia, then, as a man of great intrigue. By all accounts, he has the skills to be a lottery pick, and he has kept fresh by practicing with the Kansas scout team. Still, nobody knows how good Preston is at this point, and he'll be joining a new team and a new coach in a new country.

From one angle, it's a risky move. But maybe not as risky as staying put.

"The NCAA has to make sure they're OK as well," Player said. "Which I get it and I respect it, but enough is enough. It's been enough time. You can make a decision, or you can’t make a decision. And if you can't make a decision, point us in the direction of the people who can."

Billy Preston and his mother were forced to make a decision of their own. The March Madness dream is over, but so is the long quarantine on the sidelines, awaiting the opportunity to play.