Up at 4.45am, head home at 11pm: life as an NBA player trying to break through | NBA

It’s the peak of the summer. But Jason Preston, the young point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, wakes up at 4.45am. At a time when other 24-year-olds are sleeping in – or still out on the town – Preston is stretching. Then he has some breakfast – nothing decadent – a meal to carry him through his upcoming morning workout. It doesn’t end there, though. Preston has a full day ahead, then it’s early to bed all over again. Such is the life of a young player trying to make an impact in the NBA.

“I don’t even necessarily look at it like I have to get up so early,” Preston tells the Guardian. “It’s a good feeling. As if I’m a step ahead of everybody. I like waking up and it still being dark outside.”

For Preston, hard work is what you make of it. If you complain about your alarm clock, then you’ll be miserable. Instead, he embraces it. “That’s what we sign up for,” he says, meaning NBA players. Indeed, it’s not a regular job. It’s one of at times-brutal physicality and demand. From his own personal dawn workouts to those with the team, to lifting weights after that, Preston is busy until mid-afternoon. Then it’s off to the cold and hot tub treatments so his body can recover. Then, after a meal, he goes back to the court to get shots up from all distances. The rest of the night, such as it is, he spends with his fiancee.

The two got engaged last year on Christmas Eve. It was a dose of real life amid the hard athletic work. Considering what the NBA looks like from the outside, though, it’s not difficult to imagine a cynic saying: ‘“All basketball players have to do is play a game for a few hours a day”. But that’s simply not the case for Preston.

On a game day, the 6ft 3in point guard arrives at the practice facility for the morning shoot-around. Since he’s a younger player rather than a veteran, Preston’s shoot-around time is early in the day. He gets a workout in and shots up. Then he goes home in the afternoon to eat, take a nap and make it back to the arena for tip-off. Preston gets there around 4pm, when young players can warm up on court. After the game, whether he gets playing time or not, he’ll lift weights. It’s around 11pm by the time he leaves the arena for home. It’s grueling, but it’s also the dream he’s had since he could walk.

“I fell in love with basketball when I was four years old,” Preston says. “My mother always had it on the TV. She was definitely a huge influence on me. She was always an advocate of having me watch games. I enjoy watching every brand of basketball – high school, AAU, college. Anything.”

As a kid, Preston played in rec leagues as early as age limits would allow. He continued the sport all throughout high school, even after his mother died of cancer and he had to sleep on his friend’s couch for a year. By his senior season Preston was still only 6ft, not getting much playing time and was averaging just two points a game. But he loved basketball and wanted to stay connected with the game somehow. So, Preston enrolled in college at the University of Central Florida and began taking journalism classes. He wrote about basketball and even got a few pieces published. All the while his game was getting better. Then fate struck.

“I could feel myself getting better,” Preston remembers. He began to fill out and he added a few inches in height. “I kept my head down and stayed the course. I wasn’t listening to everybody telling me to stop.”

One day, Preston was invited to play in an AAU tournament. A team needed a fifth player, and he stepped up. He played the whole game and did well. A scout then took him aside and advised him to stick with the sport and enrol in a prep school for a year. Despite the fact that he had been attending the University of Central Florida, he went to the Believe Academy in Athens, Tennessee. When he got a chance on one of the lower teams, he excelled.

“People got to see some things I was able to do,” he says. “That made me eventually get bumped up to the A-team.”

He soon posted a three-minute highlight reel to social media. Incredibly, it helped earn him scholarship offers from two Division I schools. He picked Ohio University. Out of nowhere, he had made it to the next level. In 2021, he and Ohio upset the University of Virginia in the NCAA tournament. It was the culmination of more hours of work than Preston could recount.

“It was awesome,” he says. “I’m not a big believer that you have to do specific drills to get better. It’s just really if you’re willing to put in that much time. And build great habits. You have to rep out so many continuous movements that they become second nature.”

Preston worked so hard that even on NBA draft night in 2021, he was at the gym. A friend had to interrupt his pickup game to tell him the draft was starting. “I was just playing, and time ended up passing,” he says. He had to rush home to see if his name would be called. “If [my friend] wouldn’t have told me, I probably would have been [at the gym] during the draft,” Preston says.

He was selected with the 33rd overall pick by the Orlando Magic and traded to the Clippers, soon flying out to LA for media appearances before playing in Summer League. An unlikely dream had come true. But that doesn’t mean everything was easy afterwards. As a rookie, Preston suffered a foot injury that required surgery. But, of course, he didn’t let that stop him.

“I had a good approach to it,” he says. “I really dedicated myself to getting stronger. I gained 15lbs of muscle.”

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He even fixed his shooting touch, correcting his form by bringing his guide hand in and not letting it push out like a wave goodbye. “It was fun rebuilding everything,” he says.

While some young players think of buying mansions or the dates they’ll bring to red carpets or the piles of money they will swim in like Scrooge McDuck, Preston – who signed a three-year, $4.5m contract with the Clippers – says he tries to focus solely on work.

“I’m just trying to stay present in the moment, actually,” he says. “Just focusing on that set [of weights] and making sure I give it my all. That’s the only way you can give your best.”

Critics may look at Preston’s career to date and poo-poo it for its lack of flash. But that would be to dismiss the rarefied air Preston has breathed so far. Over the NBA’s 76 years, fewer than 5,000 players have taken the court out of the hundreds of millions who have ever picked up a basketball. Preston is one of the few to have made it. And he is still under contract with the Clippers, despite some new negotiations, with the hope of earning more playing time this year.

As Preston continues to toil, he may spend more time with the Ontario Clippers in the developmental G-League, an outfit that he says has helped him grow as a player. Last season, Preston also played 14 games with the Clippers. The experience was both “surreal” and clarifying, he says. Preston realized that he belonged, that he was “a part of it.” He averaged about three points, two assists and 1.6 rebounds a game for the Clippers, seeing around nine minutes in each contest. While not All-Star numbers, they indicate steps forward. And this offseason, Preston played for the Clippers’ Summer League team, showcasing veteran leadership to the younger players.

“This Summer League,” he says, “I was able to hold more of a vet role for some of the young guys, getting back to be a true leader for the team. That was a really fun experience for me. I enjoyed that. The guys on the team are very receptive.”

For Preston, whose life has such a storybook feel to it that AT&T made a commercial about him, the future is bright (thanks also to some recent vision improvements). From bench player in high school to veteran leader on a Summer League team, with another year to get more NBA court time, there is a lot of runway ahead.

“All in all,” Preston says, “it comes down to building good habits consistently, day-in and day-out. Once you have the habits set in stone, it makes everything a lot easier. With belief in yourself, with a head-down mentality, anything’s possible.”