DUKE recruit Zion Williamson has made a huge splash in the US despite not yet scoring a point, blocking a shot or securing a rebound in a meaningful game.
However, this much is certain: the 18-year-old All-American forward is already the most interesting player in the country.
Teammates call Zion Williamson “Zanos,” a takeoff on the Marvel Comics villain Thanos, back in his hometown, he’s referred to as “The Truth” and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has described him as the most gifted athlete he’s had the chance to coach.
“He looks like Hercules,” said Wofford College coach Mike Young, who has followed Williamson throughout high school since his program is located in the same town, Spartanburg.
Standing 6-foot-7 (200cm) and 285 pounds (130kg), Williamson is built like a defensive lineman.
He’s physically awesome, possessing a vertical leap of better than 40 inches (1m). His dunks have been social media hits since his junior year of high school, part of the reason he has 1.8 million followers on Instagram.
But those familiar with Williamson say he’s more than a human highlight film. His slams are just the start.
“Knowing what I knew about Zion heading into the summer, I was actually very surprised at what a graceful athlete he is,” teammate Javin DeLaurier said at ACC media day.
“You see all the YouTube highlights, all the stuff he can do, but his footwork, body control, and skill set is really incredible.”
White noted his basketball IQ, understanding where to be on the floor and the difference between a good shot and a bad one, is advanced for someone his age.
Young, the Wofford coach, was the first to offer Williamson a scholarship.
It was back in his freshman year of high school, before he was this extraordinary athlete. Williamson, 6-foot-3 (190cm) at the time and not nearly as muscular, was the first freshman Smith ever extended an offer to, and what stood out then was his passing ability.
Roy Rana, the coach of Ryerson University in Toronto, which faced Williamson during Duke’s Canada Tour, during which he averaged 29.7 points and a team best 11.3 rebounds, praised his ball-handling and shot-making as much as his vertical leap.
Rana even found himself in awe as Williamson grabbed a rebound with both elbows above the rim, and finished with agility under the rim on the other end of the floor.
“He can turn a coach into a little bit of a fan,” Rana said. “You’re wowed by the plays he makes.”
If you think that hype is beyond the hyperbole usually attached to impressive freshmen, consider this: An NBA scout who has seen Duke several times believes he’s a better prospect than fellow Blue Devil freshman R.J. Barrett, whom most have pegged as the No. 1 pick in next summer’s draft.
“He’s No. 1 on my board,” the scout said. “If I were trying to do a scouting report, I wouldn’t know what to put on it. He’s Charley Barkley but two or three inches taller.”
Williamson’s name did come up in the recent fraud trial of Adidas executives Merl Code and James Gatto and aspiring agent Christian Dawkins. His father allegedly requested Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend provide money, housing and a job, a taped conversation between Townsend and Code revealed.
Duke, however, has remained confident his eligibility wasn’t compromised.
The scout had heard negative things about Williamson — that he didn’t always give maximum effort and lacked a motor. But he’s only seen a dogged competitor. Rana noticed that, too. Williamson played with “an edge,” the coach said.
“He has intensity to him,” Rana said. “He’s attacking all the time. He’s not passive. His approach didn’t seem to change when we played him. He doesn’t pick and choose [when to play hard].”
Williamson is used to all the attention that has already come his way. The last two years at Spartanburg, his games were virtually all sold out. He was often followed by autograph seekers, and made it a habit to turn nobody away.
“He was like Bruce Springsteen,” Young said. “Everywhere he went, there was a humungous crowd.”
At Duke, he just wants to be one of the guys, White said. He’s never heard Williamson talk about the fame or social media attention he receives. Scheyer raved about his coachability and willingness to listen. He doesn’t have prima-donna qualities. The most common question Williamson asks is how he can get better.
“The most impressive thing for me has been his attitude,” Scheyer said. “As a coach, that’s been by far the best part. For someone with the accolades he has, to have that attitude, that’s been great to see.”
Especially when it’s accompanied by a herculean physique and rarely-seen athletic gifts. It’s no wonder the hype has already skyrocketed before his first game.
“He’s already like a one-name guy and not many people get that,” Krzyzewski said. “And I think he’ll be able to back it up.”