Darien’s Preston the center of attention
Updated 9:53 pm, Thursday, February 9, 2017
If opponents are somehow not familiar with Preston after his first three years on the varsity, a trip into the paint provides all the introduction necessary to the player who may be the MVP of the FCIAC.
It is there, players in search of layups are greeted with the awesome wing-span and athletic ability of the 6-foot-9 Preston as swiftly denies their attempts at an easy basket.
They are rejected with grace.
No player in the FCIAC hasa greater impact on games as Preston. He is a matchup nightmare for teams trying to guard him, but it is on the defensive end where he makes his biggest contributions.
Teams like Warde and Staples who would like to get to the basket with their guards are quickly frustrated by Preston’s ability to block shots, forcing them to alter their strategy on the fly.
“He took us out of our game plan, especially in the first half,” Warde coach Ryan Swaller said of Preston after the Wave defeated the Mustangs. “We stayed outside because of him. We weren’t getting drives and we weren’t getting shots we needed and we started forcing things one-on-one.”
Most coaches after playing Preston and the Blue Wave this year offer a similar refrain.
“He blocked and altered a ton of shots tonight and that was the difference,” Staples coach Colin Devine said after the Wreckers lost to Darien. “He works extremely hard on both ends of the floor. He is very active and if you alter that many shots against teams that do not have a true big, you are going to be successful.”
Preston, who will play D-III basketball at Pomona College in California, is averaging 4.2 blocks per game this season, but it is the shots he alters and players who simply avoid the paint that have just as big of an effect.
In attempts to avoid being blocked, shots are thrown up with arcs so high they nearly scrape the ceiling in some gyms.
Having him in the paint also allows the other Darien defenders to clamp down a little tighter on the perimeter knowing the big man has their backs inside.
Preston isn’t just getting done at the defensive end. He’s averaging 17.2 points per game and 14.6 rebounds.
Darien guard Zak Swetye has played with Preston since sixth grade and is continually impressed by his teammate.
“I love his size and athleticism. He is one of the most athletic and fundamental forwards in the FCIAC,” Swetye said. “He is an amazing asset for this team. He is great for the pick and roll, he has great finesse around the rim and it is great on defense knowing he is always there to help.”
Swetye and Preston are joined by seniors Theo Moore, Jack Richter, Riley Stewart and Carter Scott as well as juniors Andrew Darby and Jack Tierney, making up the most formidable Blue Wave teams anyone can recall.
The team has come up on varsity together, starting four sophomores two seasons ago, building each season to being successful this time around.
Darien’s ascension has coincided with Charoy Bentley going from assistant to head coach during their sophomore season, allowing coach and players to grow together.
“The relationship as certainly gotten stronger between myself and Coach Bentley,” Preston said. “We have had the same core of players since sophomore year and we have really been able to build a cohesive unit and work toward a common goal.”
“Being able to grow together has been the biggest thing,” Preston said. “Sophomore year we started four sophomores on a varsity team and you rarely see that happen. That year we had a lot of growing pains and was really tough but it made us much better.”
Darien currently sits at 9-6 and 8-4 in the FCIAC, right in the thick of the FCIAC playoff hunt with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
While Darien is accustomed to winning at nearly every sport in the FCIAC, the boys basketball playoffs would be virgin territory for a team historically found at the bottom of the standings.
Preston, however, is not a stranger to success, playing for the Blue Wave boys volleyball team which has reached two-straight Class L finals, losing to Ridgefield both times.
Not only has playing volleyball taught Preston what it’s like to play in big games, but many of the skills in volleyball transfer well back onto the basketball court.
“It definitely helps rebounding,” Preston said. “I know I do it more than I should, but I tip rebounds more than coming down with it. When there is a lot of traffic around me I can tip it and being able to have that control is straight from volleyball. I couldn’t jump off two feet prior to playing volleyball, I was always off one foot. Volleyball taught me two-footed jumping and that has let me jump higher.”
His coach also credits volleyball with aiding in Preston’s development.
“Volleyball helped out a lot with his jumping ability, blocking shots and his hand-eye coordination,” Bentley said. “It is hard to score on us because of him because if my guards get beat, he is there to stop the show. Playing teams that live and die going to the basket and getting to the free throw line, having him down there stops them. They don’t shoot as many free throws, they don’t get may layups and they have to change their game plan against us.”
The biggest improvement to Preston’s game his senior season has been his acumen at finding open men when he is faced with a double team.
Preston’s assists have gone up from 1.1 as a junior to 3.4 per game so far as a senior.
When doubled, Preston can find guards on the perimeter or fellow big man Tierney streaking to the basket.
“He got better year by year passing the ball,” Bentley said. “Freshmen and sophomore year a lot of people didn’t know him. Junior year they realized he was really good and they started double teaming him. He has learned to see the double coming and pass to the open man. He makes everyone better, makes everyone look better. We have guards that can hit open shots so if he gets them the ball they can be successful, too.”
Passing, scoring, rebounding or blocking shots, Preston is making his case as the FCIAC player of the year and more importantly, leading Darien into the playoffs.