Make some room, Kawhi Leonard. You’ve got company.
On Thursday, the Clippers announced that their 2021 second-round draft pick, point guard Jason Preston, underwent surgery to repair ligaments in his right foot and will be out indefinitely.
Preston, who signed a 3-year, $4.4 million contract with L.A. on August 9, suffered the injury during a workout prior to training camp and is “expected to miss an extended period of time” with “no timetable for his return,” the team said.
Similar to Leonard, who underwent ACL surgery in July, it’s not inconceivable that Preston will return before the end of the season, but it’s just as likely that he’ll miss the entire 2021-22 campaign.
Already behind Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Jackson on the Clippers point guard depth chart and with L.A. featuring multiple players who are comfortable handling the ball and playmaking, Paul George and Terance Mann amongst them, Preston’s wasn’t likely to play a tremendous amount of minutes this season even at full strength.
But Leonard’s absence, combined with the usual rigors of a full 82-game season and the ever-present risk of COVID-19 infections, surely would have afforded Preston some action, particularly given his impressive Summer League showing. In those games, Preston displayed the kind of passing and playmaking that made him a draft target of Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations.
“Jason is an outstanding playmaker and passer with terrific vision and an advanced feel for the game,” said Frank shortly after Preston was selected 33rd overall.
Preston Has a History of Overcoming Hardship
Shortly after the surgery was announced, Preston, a devout Christian, tweeted, “All apart [sic] of Gods Plan. Ready to attack this rehab head on and come back better than ever… LETS GO.”
The 22-year-old’s optimism should come as no surprise given the roller coaster ride he’s taken to get to the NBA.
Raised in Orlando by his mother, Judith Sewell, entirely apart from his father, Preston’s world went sideways when she died from cancer his junior year in high school and he was forced to move in with a friend of his mother’s and her son. Overcome with grief, Preston struggled to maintain focus, and his interest in basketball waned.
“Jason basically lost his junior year in a lot of ways,” David Martinson, Preston’s high school coach, told NBC News last December. “He had to move in with friends and was closed off. Did not talk; we were worried about him.”
By his senior year, Preston was back into the swing of things, but at just 6-feet tall and buried on the bench, any dreams of playing ball beyond high school remained far-fetched, if not laughable. In fact, Preston had already begun taking summer journalism classes at nearby UCF when a friend randomly invited Preston to play in a weekend AAU tournament.
In the months since his last high school game, Preston had grown a full four inches (he’s now 6-foot-4) and added strength, all of which served him well in the AAU tournament. He caught the attention of a few college coaches who recommended he spend a year at prep school to raise his recruiting profile. Taking their advice, Preston soon dropped out of UCF and enrolled at Believe Prep Academy in Tennessee. Though not everybody agreed with his decision.
“He was already at UCF and his education was important,” remembered Barbara Whittaker, the friend who took Jason in after Judith’s passing. “We were second-guessing him” and telling him, ‘I don’t think you did the right thing.’”
But the gamble paid off—big time. Preston eventually received a scholarship to Ohio University and finished second in the nation in assists his sophomore season.
The following season, his junior year, Preston established himself as a bonafide NBA prospect, averaging 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists and being named First Team All-MAC and MVP of the MAC Tournament. (He was also named Academic All-MAC.) In the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Preston led Ohio to an upset win over Virginia, posting 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists against the 4th-seeded Cavaliers.
Four months later, Preston was drafted by the Clippers.
Fellow Draftees Tabbed as Potential Steals
Preston was just one of three draft picks for the Clippers this summer. The other two, guard Keon Johnson (21st overall) and Brandon Boston (51st overall), also signed deals with L.A. in August and both have been mentioned as possible steals of the draft—most recently in the NBA’s annual general managers survey. Boston, in particular, who was a top prospect out of high school but was hurt by a lackluster freshman year at Kentucky.
Over three preseason games, Boston is averaging 13.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 34.2% from the field. He scored 20 points against the Kings in the second game, though it took him 19 shots to get there. Regardless, the Clippers like his confidence and feel they have a scorer on their hands. As such, Boston should see his fair share of minutes this season.
Johnson, meanwhile, who set a record at the NBA combine with his 48-inch max vertical leap and for whom the Clippers traded up four spots to select, has struggled in two postseason contests, shooting a combined 1-for-9 from the field and averaging two turnovers in limited minutes.
Johnson, who, like Boston is just 19, was drafted for his athleticism and potential, not as a finished product. He himself has admitted to being a defense-first guard who needs to improve his shooting and ball handling. The Clippers are still very high on Johnson, but it’s not hard to imagine that they expected him to be a little further along nonetheless.
Unless Johnson can quickly make himself indispensable on the defensive end, it’s looking more and more like he’ll spend much time next to Preston on the bench this season.