Scott Fowler

Why did Zion Williamson really choose Duke over UNC, Clemson and Kentucky?

Zion Williamson picks a college

Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson chooses Duke, cites Coach Mike Krzyzewski as primary reason for commitment to ACC powerhouse.
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Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson chooses Duke, cites Coach Mike Krzyzewski as primary reason for commitment to ACC powerhouse.

Zion Williamson, the most ballyhooed high school basketball recruit of the social-media era, made his college choice official Saturday night.

Williamson will attend Duke in the fall, giving the Blue Devils a 1-2-3 sweep of the top three recruits of the Class of 2018. He cited Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski as the primary reason for his decision. He said Coach K had particularly made an impression when he declared that Williamson could build his “brand” at Duke.

“It wasn’t just about basketball and what he could do for me in one year,” said Williamson, who is expected to only stay a year in college before turning pro. “It was how he can build Zion as a brand on and off the court for like the next 20 years and the rest of my life.”

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Spartanburg Day School’s Zion Williamson has a favorite type of dunk and it is this one, when he cocks the ball back in his right hand and slams it home. C. Rush online@thestate.com

Williamson also said later in our one-on-one interview after his announcement regarding his choice of one shade of blue over the other: “I wouldn’t really say it was just choosing Duke over UNC – it was other schools, too. But Duke – it’s a brotherhood. Coach K? People always talk about his past. But he never really talked about his past. He talked about how he can help me in the future and the present. It was never ‘Oh yeah, I did this in the past.’”

As for UNC, Williamson’s mother Sharonda Sampson told me that coach Roy Williams had made an “awesome presentation” about the benefits of going to Chapel Hill. But she noted that Williamson had declared when he was 5 years old that he wanted to go to Duke. And while the family made sure the player nicknamed “Mt. Zion” did his due diligence, in the end he ended up “following his heart,” as Sampson said, and joining the coach that Williamson called the “most legendary” in college basketball.

Who came in second?

Williamson wouldn’t name the runnerup in his recruitment. But after talking to Williamson, his mother and his stepfather at his announcement Saturday, I came away convinced it was Clemson.

Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, coached him off and on for years and once played point guard at Clemson himself. Anderson admitted to some mixed feelings Saturday night after Williamson’s recruitment was over.

Anderson told me that he had told Clemson’s coaches recently: “You all had a mile-and-a-half lead on the situation. I don’t know what happened along the way. ... At first, I thought Clemson was the ideal place for him. And I still believe that. ... I really believe that. But again, it wasn’t me making that decision.”

Williamson made his announcement live on ESPN2 in front of several hundred basketball fans and 40 media members clustered in Williamson’s high school gym at Spartanburg Day School, where the senior first became a social-media superstar primarily because of his assortment of NBA-ready dunks.

Williamson said he didn’t know for sure until Saturday morning where he wanted to go. Anderson said that Williamson told him less than 24 hours before the decision that he might take his final four schools, make a “March Madness” type bracket and flip a coin repeatedly until he got a winner.

It never came to that, though, as Williamson chose a Duke team that is expected to lose most or all of its starting lineup next season.

Ranked a consensus No. 2 in the class of 2018 by most recruiting services, Williamson is a burly 6-foot-6 and 272 pounds with elite leaping ability. He joins the consensus No. 1 player (R.J. Barrett) and the consensus No. 3 (Cam Reddish) in committing to Duke.

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Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson is widely considered a “one-and-done” player with the rare combination of size, explosiveness and ballhandling ability. Gregory Payan AP

Williamson has dominated high school competition thoroughly, often putting them at the bottom half of windmill slams posted on Instagram and in various YouTube highlight compilations. I watched him play in person last February, during his junior year, and saw so many jaw-dropping dunks, I lost count.

Zion Williamson with one-handed dunk in warm ups at SC Hoops Festival.

All those widely-noticed videos accounted for much of Williamson’s fame. The rapper Drake and NFL star Odell Beckham have publicly worn Williamson’s Spartanburg Day School No. 12 high school jersey. Sports Illustrated recently published a lengthy feature about the high school senior. He has been on ESPN as often as some sports anchors and has 1.1 million followers on Instagram. By nearly all measures, he is the most-publicized high school basketball player since LeBron James.

Williamson is far from a perfect basketball player, however. His jumper – and, in particular, his 3-point shot – needs work when he gets to Durham. His conditioning will need to improve when he faces far better athletes in college. He is not in great shape at the moment, owing in part to a bruised foot that forced him to miss the first two months of his high school senior season (he has returned now).

Still, Williamson is widely considered a “one-and-done” player with the rare combination of size, explosiveness and ballhandling ability. If he does only play one year in college, he will enter the NBA draft in the summer of 2019 when he is still 18.

Why not Kentucky?

Like Duke, Kentucky has built a cottage industry in “one-and-done” players. I asked Williamson why he ultimately picked Duke over Kentucky, and he went back to Krzyzewski.

“It was always more than basketball with Coach K,” Williamson said. “That basketball can stop bouncing for you at any time. If basketball was to end for me tomorrow, I would know I’m in good hands at Duke University.”

Williamson’s mother ran track at Livingstone College in Salisbury and was a former high school sprinting state champion in South Carolina. Sampson is now a middle-school teacher, although she took this year off from teaching. Williamson announced his collegiate choice on his mother’s birthday – a purposeful nod to the woman he called his “rock.”

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson throws a reverse dunk on fast break against Northside Christian.

His father, Lateef Williamson, played football at Livingstone as a defensive lineman – he had originally signed with N.C. State – but while in high school was recruited by the likes of Penn State, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Williamson revealed his choice by pulling a Duke cap from under the table. He paused when he did so to maximize the dramatic effect. And while many people inside the Spartanburg gym probably would have liked Williamson to stay in-state – South Carolina was also a finalist – they applauded his decision loudly nevertheless.

And later, Williamson noted a telling truism– college basketball is not fun and games. Coaches make millions. Players go where they believe they can maximize their exposure. Fans cheer for a player until he is badly injured or ineffective and then mostly forget him.

“In the end,” Williamson said, “this is a business. People don’t really care about your feelings. They can always go find somebody else.”

Zion Williamson, a junior at Spartanburg Day School, put on a dunking show Monday, February 13, 2017. Williams said then that his recruitment is "wide open."

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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