Zion Williamson is 16, and I believe he would win the NBA's dunk contest this All-Star Weekend if he could only enter.
Lee Sartor, Williamson's high school coach at Spartanburg Day School, said North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams had the following exchange with the star 6-foot-7 junior forward not long ago: “Roy Williams told Zion that he was probably one of the best high school players he's seen since Michael Jordan.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski brought his whole staff along with him to Spartanburg on a recruiting visit to see Williamson. Kansas coach Bill Self showed up as part of a sold-out crowd for a Spartanburg Day game recently -- the school had to start selling tickets for the first time this year instead of letting people in for free because of the demand.
Rapper Drake had his picture taken wearing Williamson's No. 12 Spartanburg Day School jersey on social media and posted it on Instagram last month. Drake and Zion now text occasionally.
But the player everyone around Spartanburg just calls “Zion” - in the same way LeBron (James) and Steph (Curry) are known by one name only in far wider basketball circles -- cannot do everything.
For instance: Williamson can't drive.
Williamson hasn't found time to take the driver's education class. He doesn't turn 17 until July, so for now his parents shepherd him everywhere.
On the court, though, driving is his thing. Williamson frequently elevates for dunks of near-Biblical proportions, which makes sense given that his name came from the Bible at the suggestion of his grandmother. Mount Zion was considered the highest point in ancient Jerusalem. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 48: “Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion.”
This Zion certainly spreads joy with his own elevation. In this social-media age, clips of those dunks are digitally passed from screen to screen with religious fervor. Williamson may or may not be the best high-school dunker ever, but he has to be the most publicized.
In the game I watched Monday night in Spartanburg, “Mount Zion” rose into the air for eight dunks that accounted for nearly half of his 34 points. Those dunks included two I had never seen a 16-year-old do.
One was a monstrous tomahawk jam worthy of former NBA dunk champion Vince Carter in his prime. Williamson is left-handed, but he performed it with his right hand just for the heck of it.
The other was a 360-degree windmill dunk so transcendent that it was No. 1 on “ESPN's Top 10 Plays” that night.
“Zion Williamson, 16 years old -- that happened!” a nearly breathless ESPN anchor said. “A 360 windmill dunk - in a game!”
A ‘wide-open’ recruitment
When he is in the air, soaring toward the rim again, Williamson said he feels free. He describes that moment as “thrilling. Because I just love being a joy to people playing the game I love. And when I can have the whole crowd stand up -- you feel like you're on top of the world.”
He is atop the high school basketball world at the moment -- ranked as either the No. 1 player in the Class of 2018 or close to it by recruiting services -- but there will be other worlds to conquer.
Williamson has received about three dozen scholarship offers from just about every big-name school in and outside the Carolinas you can name -- Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Clemson, South Carolina and Kansas among them. Kentucky is a notable exception. Williamson and his family say, however, that Wildcats coach John Calipari is “strongly recruiting” Williamson as well and has promised an official scholarship offer soon.
“Right now my recruitment is still wide open,” Williamson said. “I'm looking at the school that has a bigger plan for me once I finish with basketball. I want to go to a coach who has my best interests (at heart). And I want to go to a school with strong academics.”
Wherever he goes, it's likely he won't be there for long. When I asked Williamson if he would be a “one-and-done player,” heading to the NBA after a mandated freshman season, he said: “Every coach tells me that. If the opportunity is there, I'm going to take it, because every coach tells me I can still come back to college to finish my education.”
For now, though, he is mostly happy staying at home.
“Zion is so easygoing,” said his mother, Sharonda Sampson. “He likes to be with his friends, but mostly he's a homebody. He likes to hang around the house and watch Netflix.”
Mom was his first coach
Williamson was born in Salisbury, the child of two college athletes. His biological father, Lateef Williamson, was a 6-5 defensive lineman who committed to N.C. State but who later transferred to Division II Livingstone. Sampson was a 5-10 standout sprinter at Livingstone, and the two met on campus.
The family moved from Salisbury to Florence, S.C., when Zion was 2 . When Zion was 5, his mother and father divorced.
Sampson, who now works as a middle-school health and physical eduction teacher in Greenville, S.C., was Zion's first real basketball coach throughout a number of youth leagues.
Sampson would eventually remarry, and her new husband was also heavily involved in the youth basketball world. Lee Anderson, a point guard at Clemson and Columbus (Ga.) State in college, had started coaching AAU teams.
Because Williamson wasn't particularly tall -- the family has several team pictures in which Williamson is dwarfed by larger teammates -- Anderson started teaching him the basics playing point guard .
“Then I had a growth spurt,” Williamson said. “I was 5-9 in the eighth grade. But by 10th grade I was 6-6.”
Now Williamson is 6-7 and a solid 220 pounds. The family moved from the Florence area to Spartanburg before Zion began high school in a basketball-related decision. Sartor and Anderson became close friends on the AAU circuit, and the academics-first mentality at the private Spartanburg Day School was a major plus.
Sartor first met Williamson when Zion was in the sixth grade when he was coaching a rival team against Anderson. “Back then he was an above-average player with a high basketball IQ,” Sartor said. “That's all. No one knew this would happen.”
53 points vs. Felton
Ask Williamson who he admires in the NBA and he's ready with an answer.
“Three players,” Williamson said. “LeBron because of the way he carries himself on and off the court. Russell Westbrook because I just love the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the game. And Kawhi Leonard, because I just love the way he plays defense and handles his business.”
No 16-year-old is a finished product, and Williamson certainly is not. Although he has averaged 36.6 points and 13.5 rebounds this season as Spartanburg Day enters its state tournament starting Saturday in Sumter, S.C., he needs to work on his outside shot and his defense.
The level of competition he plays in high school is mostly weak, which means this summer will be important for Williamson as he again goes against higher-profile players from around the country at various camps and tournaments.
But Williamson has thrived in such settings before. Earlier this season, he scored 53 points in a win for Spartanburg Day over a team led by North Carolina recruit Jalek Felton.
LeBron vs. Zion as teenagers
Back in 2002, I made a pilgrimage to Akron, Ohio, to see LeBron James play in high school. Watching Zion Williamson Monday night in Spartanburg had a little bit of the same feel to me.
LeBron was a better passer in high school than Zion. He was also an inch taller and weighed 20 pounds more -- he had even more of a man's body than Williamson does. Zion, though, is a better and more explosive dunker than LeBron was as a teenager. Neither shot the ball extremely well from 3-point range.
I remember LeBron during that game doing a series of pushups at courtside -- while the game was still going on -- because he had violated his coach's “no-cursing” rule. I told Sartor this story and asked him what Williamson gets in trouble for in Spartanburg.
Sartor had to think about it.
“Zion tries to make sure he's always doing what's right,” Sartor said. “He's not going to get in trouble. But I did take him out of a game the other day because he missed two dunks. I think Zion has a goal of not ever doing the same dunk in the game, and he kept trying to do something too creative.”
Maybe Zion Williamson will be the next LeBron. Maybe he will flop completely. It’s far more likely he will be somewhere in between those two extremes. But wherever he ends up, the humility he displays will help him.
Sartor first met Williamson when Zion was in the sixth grade, playing on a South Carolina AAU team coached by his stepfather Anderson.
Williamson's team won a championship in a tournament Sartor had helped to organize. It was Anderson's habit to pass along whatever trophy the team won in any tournament to an individual player he felt deserved it for his performance.
“So I was presenting the trophy,” Sartor said. “I gave it to coach Anderson, and he gave it to Zion. But Zion immediately said, ‘No, I don't deserve this.’ He gave it to another kid on the team.
“Later,” Sartor continued, “I pulled coach Anderson to the side and said, ‘Why did Zion give it to that other kid? I didn't see that kid do anything the whole tournament.’ And coach Anderson said, ‘Yeah. But this is why Zion did it. In this tournament, that other kid made his first basket ever.’ ”