LEXINGTON, Ky. — Zion Williamson is headed to Clemson. Or at least that’s the overwhelming buzz on the eve of his college announcement.
The 5-star small forward from Spartanburg, S.C., a 6-foot-6, 275-pound athletic freak, will reveal his choice at 8 p.m. Saturday, just minutes before Kentucky hosts Florida at Rupp Arena. Wildcats fans hope the timing is some kind of sign that John Calipari and Co. are about to pull off another recruiting stunner.
All signs point to no, as 91 percent of the predictions by recruiting analysts on 247Sports’ Crystal Ball are for Clemson. But remember Kevin Knox last spring? Every single prediction in the Crystal Ball was for Duke (86 percent) or North Carolina — and then he surprised even UK’s staff by picking the Wildcats on Kentucky Derby Day.
Might Williamson, a McDonald’s All-American ranked the No. 3 overall prospect in the Class of 2018, deliver a similar shocker?
“My pick is Clemson and everyone I’ve talked to for the last month, the talk has always centered on Clemson. I can’t say definitively that’s where he’s going, but the people I talk to think that’s the case,” said Evan Daniels, director of recruiting at 247. “Anything is possible. He said the other day that he hasn’t made his choice yet — and I don’t know that’s true; I would actually probably believe that he has — but it’s certainly possible that he chooses a different school.”
Along with the Tigers and Wildcats, Williamson’s final list includes Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina. Daniels said the draw to Clemson is proximity to home (about 60 miles) and the relationship Williamson and his family, including a stepfather/AAU coach who played for the Tigers, have built with Brad Brownell and his staff.
It probably also doesn’t hurt that No. 20 Clemson is enjoying a breakout season at 15-3, with wins against Ohio State, Florida, South Carolina, Louisville and Miami, four of which have been or currently are ranked. The program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 looks likely, and a solid nucleus should return.
Williamson picking the Tigers makes plenty of sense — just look what Oklahoma superstar Trae Young is doing at his non-blue blood, home-state school this season — and yet, “it’s not 100 percent that he’s going to Clemson,” Daniels said. “He could very well have duped all of us and end up somewhere else. I wouldn’t be surprised.”
As recently as this week, folks close to the Kentucky program were not signaling surrender. In fact, there was a bit of guarded optimism about Williamson. Not that UK will land him, but that it remains possible the Wildcats might.
So we asked Andrew Slater, a well-connected national analyst who has been closely following Williamson’s recruitment, to make the case for Kentucky. If the Cats could pull off this stunner, how would they have done it?
He sent his thoughts to SEC Country in an email, and here they are, a few good reasons Big Blue Nation can cling to a sliver of hope for another day:
“The case for Kentucky to land Zion is fourfold,” Slater wrote. “Coach John Calipari has fostered a hyper-competitive and talent-rich environment which cases the best of his players to come to Lexington and improve on a daily basis en route to becoming prepared to declare for the NBA draft after one year.
“Secondly, Zion is always motivated by winning. With the likely returning core of players and the projected entering freshman class, he has an opportunity to compete for a national title.
“Thirdly, his mother has always preferred proximity. While not as close as Clemson or South Carolina, Kentucky is easily within driving distance [about five hours] for his tight-knit family.
“Last but not least, his close bond with incoming freshman point guard Immanuel Quickley [they talked openly this summer about wanting to play together] has to help the Wildcats in their pursuit of the nation’s best unsigned senior.”
That’s a pretty strong case for Kentucky. So now we wait to see if it was strong enough to sway him from the perceived home-state favorite.