SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Oh, sure, you can experience Zion Williamson’s basketball virtuosity on the Internet. Yes, you can be transfixed by his freakish athleticism through the flicker of a few rim-bending and shot-obliterating video clips, as so many thousands already have.
But the simple truth is this: You need to witness Zion Williamson in person to fully understand what it is that makes him the most exciting high school basketball player in America. Really, we could’ve ended that sentence after the first eight words: You need to witness Zion Williamson in person.
Because those of us who have done that could expend an awful lot of our vocabulary and still not do justice to the experience. “It’s kind of difficult,” 247 Sports national scouting director Jerry Meyer said, “but let’s try.” OK, let’s.
To witness Zion Williamson in person, to be close enough to hear his sneakers squeak, is to practice holding your breath — and bracing for impact — for the better part of an hour. It is to see a 6-foot-7, 250-ish-pound teenager defy both gravity and whatever preconceived notions you had about the fluidity of a body built to play defensive end in the NFL. It is to test how quickly one can retrieve a cell phone, frame a video and press record before he does something viral.
“When I go back and watch the film, I see all the phones go up in the crowd,” said Sharonda Sampson, Zion’s mother and an assistant coach for his AAU team. “The crowd, he feeds off that. He loves that. That’s him.”
To witness Zion Williamson in person, to be near enough to hear one of the college coaches in the crowd proclaim, “That’s the baddest motherf—– in this building,” is to get what you came to see. It is to become part of the performance, because he feels the weight of your great expectation but has both the desire and strength to shoulder it.
“I can sense that, and it’s an amazing feeling,” said Williamson, who admits the noise does creep in. “The thing I hear the most is just, ‘Show me something, Zion.’ ”
Williamson, who is coveted by powerhouse Kentucky, in-state South Carolina and just about every other college basketball program in the country, rarely disappoints.
The day we traveled to see him on the AAU circuit last week, he appeared hobbled and exhausted from three days of games. His team was out of title contention at the Adidas Gauntlet Finale, so this was a fairly meaningless consolation contest. Still, he summoned the energy to deliver 33 points, 9 rebounds and the jaw-dropping play to force overtime: an intentionally missed free throw that he collected himself and put back at the buzzer.
That, of course, after his usual array of thunderous dunks, how’d-he-do-that finishes in traffic and blocked shots so violent he nearly injured himself crashing back down from the stratosphere. So what is it like to witness Zion Williamson in person? Exhilarating.
After a decade and a half of scouting high school prospects, not many can send a jolt through Meyer, but this kid does.
“I get excited watching him,” Meyer said, “and that is very rare for me. So much of scouting is just mundane work; I go to the gym and really don’t get a lot of joy out of it, to be honest, because I do it so much. So it’s a huge deal when a guy makes my heart beat a little bit or he gets my adrenaline going or he makes me feel like … a fan. Zion does that.”
The list of other high school players who’ve done that to Meyer isn’t long: In the last decade, only Derrick Rose, John Wall and Lonzo Ball immediately come to mind.
“I don’t know if anyone will beat Lonzo for me, because at times I wondered if he was even human, just the way he feels the game,” Meyer said, “but I’d probably put Zion right behind him.”
That’s why Meyer is the only major recruiting analyst who ranks Williamson the No. 1 overall prospect in the Class of 2018. To be fair, no one else has him lower than No. 3 overall, but Scout, Rivals and ESPN all have 6-11 power forward Marvin Bagley III in their top spot.
So what is Meyer seeing in Williamson that the others aren’t?
“He has enormous size and explosiveness. He’s so powerful through traffic. He just has a density to him where bodies bounce off him,” Meyer explains. “Then you combine that with the fact that he has an unusual intensity and focused anger that is so very rare today, so very much of a throwback to when players tried to physically intimidate their opponents. You just don’t see that anymore. Man, there’s no one else I’d rather have on my team.”
Williamson leads the Adidas circuit in average points (27.1) and rebounds (11.3). He also averages 2.3 steals and 1.9 blocks and shoots 65.4 percent from 2-point range. There are certainly some areas he could improve: he’s just 5 of 26 from beyond the arc and hitting only 63 percent of his free throws.
But Meyer is a bit baffled by those — and there are some — who come away from witnessing Zion Williamson in person and question whether he’s “really a basketball player” or just an out-of-this-world athlete who happens to be playing the sport.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Meyer said. “Zion blew up on the Internet as this freak dunker last year, but I had him ranked No. 1 before any of that happened. I didn’t even know he could do it; I learned he could dunk like that with all the other 14-to-50-year-olds, so that’s not even what I valued about him. When I watched him last summer, I thought, ‘Holy cow, what a basketball player.’
“He’s great in traffic, and to me that’s so important. I don’t care what you do in the dunk contest. What do you do in traffic, when you’ve got bodies on you, when you’re double-teamed in the low post, when you’re fighting for a rebound? And I thought he was exceptional in those situations.
“He’s getting all those dunks in high school because he’s playing against really poor competition. I had been watching him play on the Adidas circuit and at the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp, and he’s not getting tons of breakaway dunks in that. He’s got to be a basketball player — and he’s killing people. So what else do you want?
“I would like to know what a basketball player is. If he isn’t one, I’m watching the wrong sport or I’m a complete idiot, which I don’t think either of those is true. I think those people are idiots.”
Can you tell Meyer has witnessed Zion Williamson in person and come away converted, moved by the spirit of the most exciting high school basketball player in America? Now comes the best part for Kentucky fans: There is a very good chance the rim-rocking revival will stake its tent in Lexington next fall.
Williamson and 5-star 2018 point guard Immanuel Quickley told the world last week that they’ve been plotting to play together in college — and Quickley has made no secret that the Wildcats are his leader. You need to witness Zion Williamson in person, and Big Blue Nation might get that chance for an entire season.
“It would be a huge deal,” Meyer said, “and I kind of expect it.”
Brace yourselves, Lexington. You really do have to see this to believe it.