LAWRENCE — The most fascinating player on Kansas’ roster could be in the NBA a year from today ... or he could find himself in the same doghouse Carlton Bragg was in a year ago. He could be one of the Big 12’s elite players ... and also might not be a starter by year’s end.
Though it’s strange to say with so many newcomers, much about this KU basketball roster already seems settled. Devonte Graham will be the leader. Malik Newman should be the team’s best scorer, while Svi Mykhailiuk will make threes and Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike will continue to improve as their minutes increase.
It’s all part of the reason why KU’s biggest unknown is 6-foot-10 freshman Billy Preston, who already in his young career has drawn coach Bill Self’s ire and also some of his highest praise.
“If he’s able to put it all together,” Self said Saturday, “there’s not many guys more talented in the freshman class.”
Preston, by Self’s own admission, is one of KU’s most skilled players. He can dribble and shoot and also is an above-average passer — attributes not common from someone who is nearly 7 feet tall.
Then again, Rivals’ 11th-ranked player has never been pushed like this before. During the team’s exhibition games in Italy last month, Self said “Run Billy” as much as any other phrase, working to coach hustle from the sidelines. That’s something he hasn’t had to do often during his 15-year tenure in Lawrence.
Self left the country then believing a four-guard starting lineup — with Graham, Newman, Mykhailiuk and Vick around Azubuike — could be his team’s most dangerous grouping. He said it was good for Preston, who missed KU’s last game because of an injury, to see that the team could perform well without him.
Fast forward to a month later, and following the team’s annual Boot Camp conditioning drills, Self gave his highest accolades to Preston, saying he was “a warrior, stud.”
“He did great in Boot Camp,” Graham said. “He’s getting more aggressive, learning when to shoot the ball and stuff like that, picking his spots.”
There are many challenges remaining for Preston.
It’s difficult to take much away from Saturday’s Late Night scrimmage — Self called it “bad ball” — but Preston did appear to be in good shape. That was most evident at the end, as he ran through a pass in the final 30 seconds for a steal near midcourt.
Still, the sprints didn’t always go where Self wanted them to, with the coach frustrated that that the forward didn’t end up in the lane more.
This all takes us to one of the biggest upcoming battles: Self versus Preston when it comes to playing inside.
This clash already started overseas. In Game 2, Preston received a pass on the baseline before shooting a stepback fadeaway. Self screamed from the bench, calling the move, “Weak.”
The next game, Preston received a pass in the post, backing down a defender before putting in a short turnaround. Self leaped off the bench and celebrated with two fists in the air.
With this year’s roster construction, KU needs Preston to play like a big man. Self believes this also is the best path to Preston improving his NBA outlook.
“Him playing away from the basket is obviously not going to help his stock, because he’s got to be able to rebound his position,” Self said. “That’s the thing he’s got to do ... he can play facing, but he’s got to be able to score with his back to the basket. He’s got to be able to rebound in traffic.
“Those are things that will determine whether or not he’s able to be (a lottery pick).”
One only has to look to Bragg last season to see how this could go wrong. Both guys have similar skill sets, playing as forwards with guard-like talents whose instincts often take them away from the rim.
So how quickly will Self get through to Preston? Or will it happen at all?
The resolution will go a long way toward determining KU’s success — the team’s wild card coming in the form of a freshmen who’s both aggravated and amazed his coach in two short months.