Will Cinderella Run Help South Carolina Nab Superprospect Zion Williamson?

Reid ForgraveSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 31, 2017

Team Drive''s Zion Williamson #21 warms up against Team Clutch in the Under Armour Elite 24 game on Saturday, August 20, 2016 in Brooklyn, NY.  (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Win or lose, South Carolina's wild and unexpected Cinderella run to the Final Four will have an impact that lasts far beyond the 2017 NCAA tournament.

Head coach Frank Martin's tough-as-nails style will forever be ingrained in the hearts of South Carolina sports fans. More students will likely apply to the school next year. Sindarius will probably become the state's most popular baby name.

And for the program itself, perhaps the farthest-reaching consequence could come as a slight shift in the thinking of one 16-year-old boy who lives with his mom and stepdad in a city of 38,000 about 100 miles northwest of South Carolina's campus.

Zion Williamson may only be a high school junior, but he looks like—and has the star status of—a 10-year NBA veteran. He's 6'7" and 230 pounds. Recruiting analysts, without fail, use the phrase "freak athlete" when describing him. He has over a half-million followers on Instagram, and his mixtapes have been viewed millions of times.

The rapper Drake even once posted a (NSFW) photo on Instagram of himself wearing Williamson's high school jersey.

Williamson is one of the top recruits in the country. He does 360-degree dunks in games, and all the top programs have showed interest in having him; according to 247Sports, UNC, Duke, Kentucky and Kansas have all made offers.

He's one of the most explosive athletes in recent memory, recruiting analysts say—a big, agile, positionless player who thrives in traffic and in transition, who loves physical basketball yet has a soft touch and whose name invokes impressive comparisons: Larry Johnson, Draymond Green, Jamal Mashburn.

One Western Conference scout was recently having lunch with other scouts and brought up Williamson's name. He said their eyes all lit up, and they compared him to Charles Barkley.

And now there's this twist to what previously seemed like a classic one-and-done tale: Just as Williamson is entering the most important part of his college recruiting process, an in-state school that wants him to become the highest-rated recruit in program history happens also to be the best story going in college basketball.

It's not crazy to think that Martin and South Carolina's magical four wins in March could be enough to sway Williamson to opt for his home-state school.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

And when you look a little deeper, it may be more than just a sentimental pick. It could be the smartest call for Williamson's future.

"Zion Williamson can play anywhere, but he'd certainly fit really well with Frank," says Jerry Meyer, director of basketball scouting for 247Sports. "He has special mentality—this special grind-it-out type of player—and that would really fit with Frank."

Other recruiting experts see the same dynamic at play.

"South Carolina is built on toughness, on playing aggressive defense, on wearing you down and on playing with superior effort," says Eric Bossi, national basketball analyst for Rivals.com. "A guy like Zion Williamson, he comes out of central casting for Frank Martin: his physical nature, his take-no-prisoners attitude.

"And I do believe this run for South Carolina, this Final Four coming at this time. It couldn't have come at a much better time for them in terms of recruiting Zion. They'll have to battle it out with the elite of the elite, but with all the extra media coverage you get from this, this is Frank Martin and his staff's moment to shine. It's going to create a new level of pressure for him to seriously consider a place like South Carolina."

A possible No. 1 overall pick passing over the one-and-done factories for a school that's never had a one-and-done may seem risky. John Calipari has had 28 Kentucky players drafted in his first seven seasons there. Coach K won a national title in 2015 while starting three freshmen—Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones—who were first-round picks a few months later. Kansas' Bill Self likely would have had the top two picks in the 2014 draft if it weren't for Joel Embiid's health concerns.

Conventional wisdom says Williamson should go to a school that knows how to incorporate big-time talents into its system and develop those talents for the NBA. Choose a different route, and it brings up questions. Does that player want to be The Man instead of playing within a system? Does that player shrink from the challenge of playing for a big-time college basketball power? Is there something wrong with this dude?

This kind of talk may be popular in college circles but is not so much in NBA circles. "It's a great motivation: I wanna be a trailblazer and not go where anyone else is going," says the aforementioned Western Conference scout. "If he can play, he can play, no matter what he chooses."

On the other hand, it's not like there's a lack of precedent for a 5-star basketball recruit choosing his home-state, football-centric university over basketball blue bloods after a rare Final Four run.

Just a year ago, Class of 2017 point guard Trae Young, of Norman, Oklahoma, was weighing offers from Kansas and Kentucky when Buddy Hield led Young's home-state school to the Final Four. Young told Bleacher Report before playing in the McDonald's All-American Game that Oklahoma's 2016 Final Four run played a part in his decision.

"It shows that your school can win basketball games," Young says. "It definitely played a part. ... You're representing your state and your city, [and] that's something that you want to do.

"Being as high-profile as he is, that would be crazy [for the state of South Carolina if Williamson went there]. That wouldn't only affect this year, the team he would be on, but it would affect the outcome of South Carolina basketball [in the long run] like I'm trying to do here at Oklahoma."

But there are plenty of cautionary tales when top prospects choose to stay local over going to a college superpower.

Last year's No. 1 pick, Ben Simmons, and this year's potential No. 1, Markelle Fultz, chose non-traditional basketball powers in LSU and Washington respectively. Neither damaged his draft stock. But both of their college seasons weren't exactly joyful, as neither superstar ended up playing in the NCAA tournament.

In 2015, 5-star recruit Malik Newman chose to stay in state to play for Mississippi State. His team missed the tournament when he was a freshman, and he transferred to Kansas after one season. The same year, Stephen Zimmerman stayed local with UNLV, but coach Dave Rice was fired midseason, and his team missed the NCAA tournament. He was selected in the second round.

But South Carolina's run to the Final Four takes a sentimental story and turns it into one that makes sense.

It just seems to fit Williamson so well. There's the location, an hour and a half from his family. There's the style that values toughness, fitting right in with Williamson's play. And there's the vaunted strength program that's turned South Carolina into one of the most physical teams in college basketball.

"They are part of a perimeter group that's as physically intimidating as any you'll find in college basketball," Bleacher Report's Jordan Brenner recently wrote.

On a team filled with guys who've spent as much time in the weight room as on the basketball court, Williamson would fit right in.

But yes, there are sentimental reasons too. Certainly, going to Kentucky or Duke (or any of the other handful of schools that have had success with multiple one-and-done players) seems like the prudent business decision. But how can you weigh the impact that one player can have on a school that doesn't have that sort of history?

"With some of these blue-blood programs, you go there, you win a championship there and it's billed by media as the coach's championship," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says. "'It's his sixth Final Four!' But you go somewhere where it's not often done—you go to South Carolina—and this one is Sindarius Thornwell's Final Four."

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

There's no shortage of schools that failed to capitalize on their Final Four runs, Bilas says. Look at UMass in 1996. Or Minnesota in 1997. Or Utah in 1998, Georgia Tech in 2004 or LSU and George Mason in 2006. Those schools got to the Final Four, went back home and nothing changed but the memories.

"It's a ton of attention, but it all comes at once," Bilas says. "You're watering the plants with a fire hose, but to get something to grow long term, you have to keep watering it, keep at it."

Some schools are able to take an NCAA tournament run and turn it into a catalyst for sustained excellence. It happened with Gonzaga's Elite Eight run in 1999. It happened with VCU's Final Four run in 2011 and with Butler's two trips to the title game in 2010 and 2011.

It certainly could happen with South Carolina in 2017. Maybe this run was an aligning of the stars, a perfect moment when Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier—both highly rated in-state recruits, it's worth pointing out—joined magical forces with Martin and took a team to the promised land.

Or maybe it's something more, a glimpse into what South Carolina basketball may become.

A big part of what determines the direction the program will go in could come from one 16-year-old phenom's decision to take the road less traveled and stay in state.

        

Reid Forgrave is a contributor to Bleacher Report and a former national college basketball writer for Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @ReidForgraveRecruit rankings provided by Scout unless otherwise noted.

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