Zion Williamson is not the top-ranked basketball recruit in the class of 2018 — that honor, for now, goes to R.J. Barrett — but he might be the most-hyped high school prospect since LeBron James graduated directly to the pros nearly 15 years ago.
Williamson — a 6-foot-6 small forward from Spartanburg, S.C. — has already racked up millions of views on YouTube with his highlight-reel dunks, appeared several times on ESPN’s SportsCenter and built a massive following on social media.
He’s not just a dunk machine, either.
The consensus No. 2 player in the 2018 class, Williamson’s overall game often gets overlooked because of his freakish athleticism, but he’ll be an instant-impact college player next season before likely becoming a top-5 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
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Before any of that, Williamson will need to pick a college.
That process ramps up this weekend with the first official visit of his recruitment: a trip to Kentucky.
In anticipation of that visit, the Herald-Leader asked five national recruiting analysts — Rivals.com’s Corey Evans, Scout.com’s Evan Daniels, ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, and Jerry Meyer and Andrew Slater of 247Sports — to weigh in Williamson’s recruitment. Each analyst was asked to rank the star player’s three most likely landing spots, in order. Those answers were tallied up to form a consensus ranking of the favorites in Williamson’s recruitment.
Here’s what our panel came up with:
5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks mustered little support from our panelists, but it was still enough to land in the No. 5 spot on this list (fellow finalists North Carolina and UCLA got zero mention). Williamson was in Columbia last weekend for the South Carolina-Kentucky football game, spending some quality time with Coach Frank Martin and soaking up the love from the home-state crowd. Williamson has said all of the right things about his interest in the Gamecocks, but they appear to have little chance here. If he stays home to play his college ball, another program seems to be the most likely landing spot (more on that later).
4. Duke: Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s pitch that he would play Williamson like he did LeBron James in the 2012 Olympics was enough to warrant special mention in the star player’s USA Today blog last week, and the Duke coach is in a unique spot to deliver that pitch. Williamson is clearly interested in the Blue Devils, and they nearly got the No. 3 spot on this list — one analyst picked them as high as No. 2 — but Duke also has some ground to make up.
There’s been a perception that the Blue Devils have prioritized Barrett — a 6-7 shooting guard — over Williamson, and they already have a commitment from five-star small forward Cameron Reddish. Some analysts still see Duke as the leader for Barrett, and — while all three of those players could probably co-exist on the court — it seems unlikely they’ll all play together. Duke will host Williamson for an official visit on Oct. 20, and no one has been hotter than Coach K on the recruiting trail in recent weeks.
3. Kansas: This was a bit of a surprise. As the summer wrapped up, Williamson’s recruitment was being shaped as a likely Kansas-Kentucky battle. Not only did the Jayhawks not finish in the top two among our experts, they were much closer to the No. 4 spot than the No. 2 spot. In fact, three national analysts left Kansas off of their lists altogether.
Williamson played his summer ball on the Adidas circuit, and Kansas is a premier Adidas school. The Jayhawks have also been seen as favorites for highly touted point guard Devon Dotson, a friend of Williamson, and they extended a scholarship offer to another friend and AAU teammate of the star recruit.
The Jayhawks will get a chance to host Williamson for an official visit next weekend, but — according to the experts we asked — their stock has fallen sharply in this recruitment.
2. Clemson: This was probably the biggest surprise on the list. The aforementioned “Kentucky vs. Kansas” narrative surrounding Williamson’s recruitment in recent months has sometimes incorporated Duke, but rarely did the in-state schools garner much of a mention. Clemson and Kentucky were the only two schools to be mentioned on all five analysts’ lists this week, and one national expert put the Tigers in the No. 1 spot.
Williamson visited Clemson for the home football game against Auburn a couple of weeks ago and could return to the local school for an unofficial visit this fall. His stepfather, Lee Anderson, is also a former Clemson basketball player.
Brad Brownell has done a terrific job in this recruitment so far, and the Tigers appear to be a serious threat to land one of the best players in high school basketball.
1. Kentucky: The Wildcats were the clear No. 1 pick among the national experts. The majority of the top recruiting analysts put UK at the top of their lists, and none of the five had the Cats lower than No. 2, a great sign for John Calipari as he welcomes Williamson and his family to Lexington this weekend.
UK has made the star player a clear recruiting priority in recent months, closely following him on the Adidas circuit and making multiple trips to his hometown in South Carolina. Five-star point guard Immanuel Quickley — expected to commit to the Cats any day now — is a close friend of Williamson’s, and the two players have talked repeatedly about teaming up at the college level.
Williamson is expected to take all five official visits this fall and has mentioned the possibility of signing in November. Going into these visits, UK appears to be in the best shape.