Getcha Popcorn Ready: College Choice Is Next Act in the Zion Williamson Show

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterJanuary 19, 2018

Spartanburg Day's Zion Williamson #12 is seen against Chino Hills during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 13, 2018, in Springfield,MA. Chino Hills won the game. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

For much of this week, Spartanburg, South Carolina, has served as the capital of the college basketball universe.

On Tuesday, coaches from Duke descended on the small city of 38,000 people. On Wednesday, coaches from South Carolina came, followed by North Carolina coaches on Thursday and Clemson coaches on Friday. They each arrived with the same goal: to make their final pitches to perhaps the most famous high school basketball player since LeBron James.

On Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, from his home gym at Spartanburg Day School, Zion Williamson will at long last put his recruiting to rest and officially announce his college choice. He has already narrowed his search to six schools: Clemson, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Technically, Williamson wasn't even the most coveted player in his class—that distinction belongs to Canadian forward R.J. Barrett. But the 17-year-old Williamson is far more special. He is the rare college basketball prospect who will arrive on campus with name recognition and a built-in fanbase. He doesn't need his university to make him a hoops celebrity; he's already a star.

Top recruits will typically talk about fit or comfort as the main reasons they commit to a particular school, but most often, it comes down to mutual admiration. For obvious reasons, top programs want the most talented players. And for equally obvious reasons, top prospects desire the attention and adulation that comes from suiting up for blue-chip programs. And it's not just because schools like Duke or Kentucky afford players every luxury short of a salary. It's because they have rabid fans who will follow alumni and root for them throughout their professional careers.

But Williamson isn't wanting for fans.

He rose to fame on social media as ferociously as he rises for his signature rim-busting dunks. He was first featured on House of Highlights as a 16-year-old, and he's been a regular attraction ever since. There are 15 YouTube videos that feature Williamson with over one million views. Barrett's top video, by contrast, has fewer than 500,000 views. Williamson's AAU game against LaMelo Ball last July attracted 1.3 million live viewers, according to ESPN, which is about the same audience for the average college basketball game on the network. He has nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter, and his 1.1. million Instagram followers are nearly double any program pursuing him.

In Spartanburg, he's been asked to sign Bibles. His high school games are all sellouts. At his AAU games, onlookers split their attention between their court and their screens, hoping they can Snapchat or Instagram Williamson's next sensational slam. He is the player for a generation of social media-savvy fans.

This level of fame has surely been challenging at times for a teenager, but it has also freed Williamson to make the best decision for the next step of his career. Not only does he have his choice of programs, but he also is free from worrying about which will help him best build his brand. He can accomplish all he needs to in that department on his own.

"In the end, this is a business. And those schools are recruiting me to help their program," Williamson told reporters at the Hoophall Classic this week.

According to 247 Sports' Crystal Ball projections, Clemson is the leader in the clubhouse. But Williamson has wisely noted that he doesn't have to stay in South Carolina for the sake of his fans.

"I don't really feel pressure with that," he said at Hoophall. "I can't just go to a school to be a local hero, I have to go to the school that is best for me. If I don't go to an in-state school, if they are real supporters, they will support me wherever I go."

Finding player comparisons for the 6'6", 275-pound Williamson is a struggle for NBA scouts. He's a power forward stuffed into a 2-guard's frame, and his dunk-first (and -second and -third) style of play doesn't exactly suit the jump shot-happy modern NBA. In that sense, joining a program like South Carolina or Clemson, where he would be free to hog possessions in an offense tailored to his strengths, could be beneficial to his NBA draft prospects.

At North Carolina, he would have the likely benefit of sharing the load with a senior star—and potential player of the year candidate—in Luke Maye. He would also join Nassir Little, one of his closest friends in the class. Of course, at Kansas, Kentucky or Duke, he would have the opportunity to spark or strengthen friendships with other rising stars. At Duke, he'd complete a trio of the top three players in 2018, along with Barrett and Cam Reddish.

At many of the programs, he'd benefit from Hall of Fame coaching.

If Williamson is as ready for the next level as he seems to be, he can't make a bad choice in this spot. On Saturday night, he'll show once again how big his draw is, with scores of viewers virtually descending on Spartanburg. And most fans will continue to follow him after that.

Get ready for the start of college basketball's next great show.

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