His reputation as a superior athlete preceded Zion Williamson’s arrival on Duke’s campus this summer.
He’s the kid from South Carolina with all those dunk videos online. Check out YouTube, where highlight packages of the 6-7, 285-pound Williamson’s dunks are approaching 2 million page views.
His teammates are now seeing what all the fuss is about.
“I’ve never seen an athlete like him,” Duke junior guard Jack White said. “He just turned 18, what three or four weeks ago? The maturity he has physically and just how he is as a person handling the spotlight being on him with social media. Pretty much everywhere he goes, people are trying to track him down and get photos. It’s a lot for an 18 year old kid.”
Williamson and the rest of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class have joined Duke’s returning players for their offseason work.
They’ve played pickup games and gone through individual drills with coaches. They held a scouting combine-style testing event at the K Center practice facility. Williamson wowed his teammates with a stunning vertical leap that, predictably, immediately went viral on the internet.
Because the device used to calculate the vertical leap had to be put on top of some stacked weights in order to raise it higher, no one at Duke is really certain exactly how high Williamson leaped, although it was estimated at 45 inches.
That puts him in the neighborhood of celebrated leapers like Michael Jordan (46 inches), David Thompson (44 inches) and Vince Carter (43 inches).
Either way, Duke refers to the jump as a new program record.
The newest version of the Blue Devils is now practicing in preparation for a trip to Canada next week, where Duke will play three exhibition games against Canadian university teams.
That trip will allow R.J. Barrett, the top-rated player in the freshman class, to return to his home country. Cam Reddish and Williamson were rated just below Barrett, giving Duke the nation’s top three incoming freshmen.
Williamson, though, is a lightning rod of attention who stands out even among this ultra-talented group.
Ever since his junior season at Spartanburg Day School, when his viral dunk videos started making their way around the internet and he was rated among the top recruits in the country, Williamson had relinquished the chance to be a normal teenager.
Where people in public used to refer to him by his jersey number earlier in his high school career, they now knew his name.
“I could never go anywhere without people going, `Are you Zion?’,” Williamson said during an interview with The News & Observer on Tuesday. “It was no longer No. 12. It was, are you Zion? Can I get a picture? I would go somewhere away from here thinking nobody would know who I am. And it would be `Do I know you from somewhere?’”
It hasn’t stopped even on Duke’s campus, a place which houses some of the nation’s top basketball players every year. The campus is crawling with teenage visitors this summer attending the different athletic and academic camps the school hosts.
Walking to class or to the cafeteria to grab lunch brings Williamson more requests for photos.
“I’m enjoying myself,” Williamson said. “It’s never too much for me to stand there and take a picture. If I’ve got to get to class, I mean, I’ve got to get to class. But I’m enjoying myself. Nothing is really bothering me.”
Something that happened back in South Carolina did stand out, though. While visiting Columbia, S.C., for a school event, Williamson went to grab a sandwich for lunch. The next week, he said, a video someone took from far away of him getting lunch was posted on the internet.
“I don’t even remember that person being there,” Williamson said. “Yeah, here’s Zion here in Columbia at Subway. I’m like, wow. It’s really come to that. It’s kind of phenomenal.”
While dealing with all that hype, Williamson is trying to learn basketball at a higher level. He’s glad to be playing for Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the Hall of Fame coach who is the sport’s all-time wins leader.
“He’s been through so much,” Williamson said. “His intelligence for the game is off the charts. I honestly wish more people could see how he thinks the game through. He could draw up a real simple play and you’d be like, `that play is not going to work.’ And it will be wide open and you’ll see the game is so simple.”
It hasn’t taken long, but Williamson has already learned another important lesson about how his dunks will fit into his play at Duke.
“If it’s there it’s there, but this is college, not high school anymore,” Williamson said. “I can’t afford to do the highlight dunk and miss it because, if I do that, I’ll be sitting right on the bench beside the coaches. So if it’s there and we have a reasonable lead, maybe. But, if not, two points, get back on defense.”