Kansas basketball’s most fascinating player was exactly that Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
Billy Preston scored 11 points in 23 minutes. In the second half, he went 4-for-4.
And here’s what coach Bill Self thought about the freshman’s performance:
“I thought he can score,” Self said. “I thought he played poorly.”
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By the end of KU’s 86-57 exhibition victory over Fort Hays State, the word “Billy” appeared in my notebook six times — each representing an instance where Self screamed at him from the bench.
Once, Preston didn’t post up in the right spot on one of Self’s popular plays. A few minutes later, he freelanced on the same set, dribble-driving and throwing a pass out of bounds when he was supposed to swing it to a teammate.
“He didn’t understand what we were trying to do,” Self said, “and certainly he was a liability on defense.”
If we’re being honest, Preston knowing where to go offensively shouldn’t be a huge concern. That will come with repetition, with Preston saying at this point in the season, KU’s coaches are introducing a new play every two practices or so.
“I’m good with the offense,” Preston said. “I’m still learning, though.”
The more important matter here is getting through to Preston about always playing with effort. That includes Self having him realize that scoring is great, but it’s not what’s most important.
“We need him to be good so bad because we need our most talented guys to play well,” Self said. “If that is the best we got from an intangible standpoint (Tuesday), it was not good.”
Self had many complaints. Preston didn’t post up strong once all game, he said. The freshman also allowed too much dribble penetration, didn’t rebound well and also seemed to adjust his energy level based on the competition.
“Whenever he is guarding a guy who is not exactly a West Virginia or a Kentucky guy, and you cannot protect the rim against 6-foot guys, that is sad,” Self said. “There are a lot of things he can learn from this one.”
This isn’t an unexpected challenge for Self. During the team’s four exhibition games in Italy this summer, he often had to urge Preston to run harder — something that usually is a prerequisite for playing time at KU.
Preston appears willing to learn but simply hasn’t ever been pushed like this.
And for now, coach and player aren’t at a point where they’re of the same mind.
When Preston was asked about Tuesday’s game, he said this: “I had a better (second) half. I came out with a different mentality.”
Here’s what Self said about Preston’s second half: “I didn’t notice there was much of a difference.”
The variance should be expected this early. A one-and-done talent is working to improve, while a Hall of Fame coach is searching for the best way to make him better.
At the moment, that means Self will keep repeating himself until one message is delivered clearly.
“You make a jump shot so you play better?” Self said. “That’s not how I see the game.”