Basketball phenom Zion Williamson takes celebrity status in stride
Thanks to Zion Williamson, the basketball universe has annexed one county from the state of South Carolina.
On Friday night in the football-crazy Palmetto State, two titans of college basketball will draw Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena temporarily into their realm. But they’ll blow in and out of town before the end of the weekend, leaving before Williamson returns to school Monday morning.
And though Duke and North Carolina will also return to Tobacco Road, coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams won’t be gone for long to their newly charted territory.
They, along with just about every other blue-blood program in college basketball, will soon return to the Upstate, in an effort to lure South Carolina’s best high school basketball player beyond its borders.
Frank Martin and his staff from the University of South Carolina, the third co-star of this weekend’s games in Greenville, will continue their efforts to keep Williamson (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) close to home, as will Brad Brownell and his guys in Clemson.
If you like drama, buckle up. It’s coming. Williamson’s recruitment is only getting started. A junior, his decision won’t come until after his senior season at Spartanburg Day School.
No offense to Williamson and the folks who make up his inner circle, but it’s just the nature of the beast.
Besides, it’s not like it’s news to them. The last six months or so have already served as a precursor, thanks to Drake, SportsCenter, an endless selection of mixtapes and the rock star receptions Williamson receives almost everywhere he goes.
Sharonda Sampson, mom to the 16-year-old superstar small forward, is impressed with the way her son has handled his newly minted celebrity status.
“We don’t have to worry about him being around it. He’s been great with it,” she said. “He understands that you can have success, but you have to still continue to work, because there’s somebody out there who’s working harder, just to be better than you are.
“As far as being grounded, he’s been great with that. Sometimes, it makes me a little nervous when he’s in large crowds, but he enjoys it. He enjoys that kind of thing, but you just never know what some people’s intentions are. That makes me a little leery.”
Williamson embraces it.
“Choosing this life,” he said, “It’s going to come with things like this, so I just enjoy, rather than not enjoy it.”
For him, this life is about preparing for the chance to dap up NBA commissioner Adam Silver during the draft. Williamson doesn’t turn 19 until July 2019, the first year he is eligible for the NBA draft. The early-morning workouts, hours in the gym, rim-rattling dunks and post-game selfies with fans – all of it is done knowing that moment is on the horizon.
Basketball is already “like” a full-time job for him. Williamson looks and plays like a grown man among boys, even when those other boys are 5-stars, too.
“But I enjoy it,” Williamson said, “Because, when I grow up, I want to have a job that I love and basketball is what I want to do.”
‘You gotta see this kid’
Carey Rich immediately started calling his college basketball coaching friends. He couldn’t wait to tell them about the rising freshman who moved from Florence to Spartanburg.
A former point guard at South Carolina, Rich first saw Williamson during an AAU tournament at Heathwood Hall in Columbia. That’s when the calls started to go out.
“This was before the explosiveness and the athleticism. This was before all of that,” Rich said. “He was just a basketball player that plays smart. Then, a year later, you see everything else. That’s when you were able to appreciate that a lot more.”
In 2016, Williamson entered AAU season with five offers. Nearly 12 months later, he was approaching 40.
But it’s not just the scholarships and where he can play college ball for, presumably, one year. It’s the dunks that have captured the attention of all basketball fans, from the junkies to the casual fan who knows of LeBron and Steph but guesses their way through most of their bracket in March.
“My life is completely different now,” Williamson said. “Everywhere I go, people recognize me. I have to work harder and harder, because I know that somebody is trying to come after me. I just know I have a target on my back. For me, I just continue to work hard.”
Stuff really got crazy when one of the most famous rappers in the world posted a picture of himself wearing Williamson’s jersey.
“At first, it was a little overwhelming, because I’m not used to stuff like that,” Williamson said.
But he’s a quick learner.
Williamson knows how to handle himself, whether it’s in a crowd, during an interview or sitting at home by himself as he’s about to fire off a tweet.
“I know it comes with the territory, and we’ve talked about that,” his mother said. “So he understands your surroundings and be nice to people, to be careful of your surroundings.
“He’s been good with that.”
The next level
Recently, Williamson has visited Clemson, Duke, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wofford. He’s open to all suitors, some of whom may include Arizona, Florida, Louisville, Kentucky, UCLA and UConn.
To help wade through the noise, Williamson leans on his family and coaches for advice. He also talks with the players at the colleges he visits.
South Carolina point guard P.J. Dozier, Clemson forwards Jaron Blossomgame and Elijah Thomas and a handful of players from North Carolina have all been sought out by the country’s No. 2 overall prospect in the class of 2018.
None, however, have reached Williamson’s stratosphere, especially not in high school.
“I think, from an athletic standpoint, you think of a guy like Shawn Kemp, but I don’t think Shawn Kemp could handle the ball like him,” Rich said. “Because a lot of people talk about his dunks – but the most under-appreciated value is his ability to get to the lane to dunk, which means he can handle the basketball.
“He’s explosive. And he understands, because of his feel for the game, he knows how to get to the basket.”
In the meantime, Williamson’s focus is on the upcoming AAU season, which gets underway later this spring when his team, South Carolina Supreme, hits the Adidas Gauntlet.
“Just to see his hard work starting to pay off – he’s getting all this attention (and) he’s handled it really well,” Sampson said. “Some kids would get the big head. He really enjoys it. He enjoys this stuff.
“I think this is what the recruiting process is all about, having a good time, playing with his friends, getting to travel and meet a lot of different coaches. So it has been fun. It is fun.”