Jason Preston nearly wasn’t an Ohio Bobcat.
He didn’t announce his commitment to Ohio until May 7, 2018, the second-to-last player to be added to the 2018-19 recruiting class. His only scholarship offer for much of last year was from Longwood, a college in the Big South Conference.
But now, not even a full year after his commitment to play college basketball in Athens, he’s proven to be the most valuable of the recruits. After the departure of Zach Butler after just one season, Phillips was left with a thin guard rotation. Add in the loss of Jordan Dartis for the season, and the fifth-year coach was looking at a serious problem.
Teyvion Kirk performed exceptionally well his freshman year, but he can’t run the entire offense by himself 40 minutes a game. Not only can he not play the entirety of the game, but throughout his sophomore season, Kirk has struggled at times, such as a 4-of-22 day from the field against Kent State.
While he’s played in 19 games this season, he’s only averaging 5.5 points per game. That’s because for the first half of the season, he didn’t want to be a weak link on the floor. He didn’t want to be that guy who just threw up the ball whenever someone passed him the ball.
Still, when Preston plays well, Ohio plays well.
“The constant is J being a guy who has the ball in his hands and making others better,” Phillips said. “Regardless of who the primary ball handler is, J creates opportunities. There’s a lot of good players in college basketball, but the guys who are truly special are the ones who make others better. I wish he’d shoot more.”
Jason Preston flashes a smile as he checks into the game.
There’s 15:46 left in the game, and Ohio’s down 43-41 at home to Ball State. The freshman guard can see the floor differently. He has the kind of court vision coach Saul Phillips calls elite. Not only can he see the floor well, but he stands out on the court.
Standing 6 feet 3 inches tall, his haircut makes him noticeable, bouncing up and down on the floor as he runs around trying to make the Ohio offense look better. When Preston’s on the floor, it all runs more smoothly. He’s able to give an extra pass without thinking if he should be the one taking the final shot in the game.
In the final 15 minutes of the game, Preston makes key play after key play. With 10:48 to play, he knocks down a jumper on the right side of the hoop. He hits a turnaround jumper, and a possession later he grabs an opponent’s turnover and goes coast-to-coast for a layup.
With 39 seconds left in the game, Gavin Block knocks down a 3-pointer, giving the Bobcats a lead for good. Ben Vander Plas passes the ball to Block on the possession, but it’s Preston who brings up the ball to setup the game winning play.
Preston missed a game and a half two weeks ago against Kent State and Toledo. He exited the Kent State game due to a concussion and then was absent against Toledo. In both games the Bobcats’ offense came to a halt, scoring just 52 points in both contests.
In both, Preston was absent from Ohio’s gameplan.
Ohio’s won two of its last three games since his return. He’s dished out 14 assists and scored 21 points. While he remains absent from the starting lineup, his no look passes and coast-to-coast layups continue to impress.
No matter if he’s in the starting lineup or not, Phillips knows that he needs to Preston to win games on the offensive side of the ball.
“He just does such a good job of setting guys up,” Block said. “I’m at my best when he’s making me better, along with making everyone around him better. J is just really good at getting people open, and finishing, too.”