It’s not hard for Zion Williamson to pinpoint when his life became public property.
Prior to his junior year at Spartanburg Day School in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he was a big name in a small town; the former skinny – he claims – middle school quarterback turned high school basketball star was an emerging local legend, but that was about it.
But two years ago, he grew bigger and more explosive at the same time. He went from a 6-foot-3, 170-pound freshman to 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds in Grade 11, pairing the frame of an NFL linebacker with the explosiveness of an elite sprinter. It’s a rare combination anywhere, but particularly on the hardwood and his transformation was captured on videos that quickly went viral, his fame growing with every improbable leap and bound as he smashed every rim he could find.
Early in his Grade 11 year, Williamson was another gifted high school kid, by the end of the season he was known by anyone who follows basketball and has an internet connection. His highlight videos were viewed by millions; he trended on Twitter well before he ever arrived at Duke for the 2018-19 season, which kicked off Wednesday night in Mississauga against the Ryerson Rams and continues Friday against the University of Toronto before winding up in Montreal against McGill University.
Now listed at 285 pounds (he says he’s closer to 270 after a summer of training), Williamson remains an online fascination. A five-second clip I posted of him dunking from the free-throw line after practice at Paramount Fine Foods Centre this week swamped social media in mere moments, it seemed.
His favourite video compilation?
“If I had to pick on it would be my junior year’s Ballislife and elite mixed tapes. It just showed how things changed from the beginning of the year when no one is the stands to after the Christmas break the gym is packed and celebrities are wearing my jersey and stuff, just going from small town and to global.”
Incredibly, Williamson isn’t the only teenage celebrity in his locker room. Duke has gathered one of the most hyped freshman classes in NCAA history. Sharing the headlines with Williamson are Canada’s R.J. Barrett, who was rated the No. 1 the top prospect in ESPN’s recruiting rankings, just beating out Williamson (No. 2) and Cam Reddish (No. 3). It’s believed to be the first time the top three recruits from one class chose the same school. Tre Jones (17th) and Joey Baker (41st) round out a group of youngsters expected to have the Blue Devils competing for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth national championship come March.
There is strength in numbers, and not just on the floor.
Barrett has enjoyed a slower and steadier rise to prominence than Williamson’s rapid ascent, but given his bloodlines – son of national team star Rowan; godson of Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash – it was inevitable that as soon as the younger Barrett’s talent began to emerge, he was noticed and by the time he was a senior in high school, he too was an online sensation.
Williamson and Barrett are roommates on campus at Duke, meaning the two most widely known basketball prospects on the planet can compare notes about what it’s like to live under a microscope before having played their first college game.
“It’s weird, we almost had the same experiences in high school, being the top player and stuff,” says Williamson. “And so we have a lot of things in common – how hard we had to work to get there, what was it like to get booed for things, so it’s just a great thing to have someone you can relate to so close.”
It’s a relief for Barrett too: “It’s amazing to have guys like Cam and Zion [as teammates] because we all have been going through the same things, so we help each other out and we have a great bond because we have so many things in common.”
For his part Barrett is as wowed by Williamson as everyone else. Barrett is an elite prospect because he profiles so closely with proven NBA stars – he’s 6-foot-7, can run, jump and has an exceptionally mature all-round game. He already looks like top-flight NBA player.
Williamson might be a little rawer – “he’s still figuring out what player he’s going to be,” says Krzyzewski – but he is unlike anything Barrett or almost anyone else has ever seen:
‘He’s ridiculous, I don’t understand,” said Barrett after Williamson pulled off his free-throw line dunk this week. “He’s my roommate so we talk a lot, we’re together all the time, so it’s becoming less … I can’t say that. Every time he steps on the court I’m like ‘This guy is crazy.’ So I try to keep up with him.”
They’ve already set a standard for everyone else. In their first game as teammates, Barrett scored 34 points and Williamson 29 in their win over the Ryerson Rams. They also showed an eagerness to find the other, with Barrett hitting Williamson for a spectacular alley-oop early in the fourth quarter and Williamson trying return the favour a moment later, only to misfire on the pass. The coordination will only grow, at this point it’s the thought that counts.
While having so much talent in one freshman class might seem like overkill, for the likes of Barrett and Williamson and the rest of their peers, it presents a solution to what could otherwise be a problem. It might typically be lonely at the top, but in this case, they don’t have to do it alone.
Under the legend known as Coach K, Duke has made a habit of attracting not only top talent, but the kind of people who are comfortable sharing the spotlight, perhaps even more so because it’s so bright.
Krzyzewski can point to star-studded teams from years past at Duke or his successful run coaching the US Olympic team to three straight golds as examples of the success that can be had when top talent feels comfortable making sacrifices.
“In one of our suppers together, we had what I referred to as a values meeting,” Krzyzewski explained as Duke’s first-ever Canadian Tour kicked off. “What are the values of our program? [We] talk about them — whether they be integrity, trust, selfless service, loyalty, things like that — before you ever get to an offence or a defense. And it’s worked for me, not just with the Duke team, but the U.S. team … and you have a better chance of doing well if you do that.”
It’s exactly what Williamson and Barrett and Duke’s other fab freshmen were looking for. Rather than the burden of carrying a team, they’re eager to share the load.
“That’s why we all came to Duke,” said Williamson. “Since we’ve been here the ball doesn’t stick, we find the open man … Coach K has done it before with Team USA and stuff and we can all trust him.”
And in the case of Williamson and Barrett, roommates, teammates and fellow social media sensations for their one and very likely only season at Duke before the NBA comes calling, they can trust each other.