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High school basketball star Zion Williamson considers NC State, Duke, UNC

Sharonda Sampson was most concerned about her young son. His knees developed tiny knots and ached so badly at times over the course of two summers that Sampson iced them to ease the pain.

Zion Williamson grew five inches between eighth and ninth grade, and another four inches the following year, sprouting from a stocky 5-10 to a manly 6-7. In what seemed like an overnight transformation, Williamson went from being a potential college prospect as a point guard to one of the nation’s most sought-after players as a multiposition talent who could both handle the ball and play power ball around the rim.

His mother is here to tell you that Williamson’s growth plates are still open. Her son could grow to be 6-9 or 6-10 – perhaps taller – by the time he takes his game to one of the nation’s top college programs. Although he has not trimmed his list of contenders, Duke, UNC and N.C. State are among participants in the sweepstakes for his services.

Depending on what recruiting rankings you want to believe, Williamson is either the top-rated player in this year’s junior class, or at least among the top three. He averages more than 35 points and 15 rebounds per game for Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina, a private school known much more for its academic prowess than any athletic success Williamson has helped garner.

“Zion does stuff that shocks your soul,” says Lee Sartor, who in two stints at the school has coached the boys basketball team for 12 seasons. Spartanburg Day was the South Carolina Independent Schools Association Class 2A runner-up in 2015 before winning the school’s first title a season ago.

It is no coincidence that the leap to state, private school power occurred when Sampson re-located her family halfway across the state from South Carolina’s Pee Dee region in Florence to Spartanburg, an hour’s drive southwest of Charlotte. Sampson does not hide the fact that the move was made for Zion’s basketball advancement, although she was equally thrilled to know of Spartanburg Day’s reputation of preparing students academically for college.

Coach mom

Sampson had an inkling from birth that her son was destined to be an exceptional athlete. How could he not be? Even though Williamson was a rather modest 7 pounds, 4 ounces and 21 inches in length, he was born to a 5-10 mother who won four South Carolina state sprint championships for Class A Ruffin High (now Colleton County High) and later ran track at Livingstone College in Salisbury; and a father, Lateef Williamson, who first attended N.C. State on a football scholarship but never played in a game before transferring and playing three seasons as a 6-5 lineman at Livingstone.

Sampson and Williamson met as undergraduates, and Zion was born in Salisbury. He was named after references in the Bible that mean “fortification.” When Zion was 2, his parents were off to the Florence area of South Carolina to be closer to their families. Soon after, they divorced.

From the first time Zion could dribble a basketball, Mom was his coach. She was at once a middle-school physical education teacher, boys basketball coach and coach of all of her son’s recreation league teams. In those recreation leagues, she met her current husband, Lee Anderson, who played basketball at Columbus (Ga.) State University.

Anderson ran a basketball program for youth players in Florence during the summer months, and Sampson enrolled her son.

One day, Anderson asked Zion, then 5, the same question he posed to all others in camp.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?”

“I want to go to Duke and play basketball,” Zion replied.

Williamson later would say the same thing about UNC and other schools.

Anderson then went about mapping a plan for Williamson to fulfill his dream of playing college basketball. That meant slotting the 5- and 6-year-old Williamson on summer travel teams that consisted of 9- and 10-year-olds. In recreation league games at the YMCA, Williamson was so dominant a rule was instituted that every player had to sit on the sideline for one quarter of each game.

When Williamson got to seventh grade, he played for his Mom at Johnakin Middle School near Florence. During his eighth grade season, Johnakin faced powerful Hartsville Middle School, which annually dismantled teams with its pressing defense.

“You know, middle school boys learning how to play basketball, if two boys run at you, chances are you’re going to turn the ball over,” Sampson says. “Most middle school kids, you see that kind of pressure coming, you start panicking. Not Zion. No, not Zion.”

Hartsville carried a 9-0 record into the game and trapped Johnakin from the opening tip. Williamson would have none of it. He either dribbled around or through the traps and found open teammates for layups at the basket. Johnakin jumped to a quick 10-0 lead, Hartsville dropped back into a zone defense and Williamson led his team to an easy victory.

Four positions

All along the way, Anderson, who played point guard in college, instructed Williamson in the finer points of directing an offense and being a team leader on the floor. Williamson developed a point-guard mentality early and never lost it.

Then Sampson and Anderson made a crucial decision in Williamson’s development. They moved to Spartanburg, where Anderson’s close friend, Sartor, was coaching at Spartanburg Day. While Williamson might have taken a step backward in terms of competition by shifting to a small, private school, his mother and stepfather were thrilled that Sartor would tutor him for the next four years.

In addition to playing in tournaments against top-level public schools during the high school season, Williamson squared off against the nation’s best players during the summer. This past summer, he won MVP honors at the Under Armour Elite 24 all-star game while also winning the dunk contest. He also was co-MVP at the National Basketball Players Association developmental camp.

He separates himself from the crowd of talented players by his ability to play any of four positions on the court, and his tirelessness at working to improve his game. Mike Krzyzewski told Sartor that Williamson could play just about any position at Duke, which is not surprising since Krzyzewski shies from pigeon-holing players into positions anyway. UNC’s Roy Williams told Sartor that Williamson reminds him of Michael Jordan in the way he competes and works at his game.

“He’s the most gifted offensive player on the team. He’s the most gifted defensive player on the team, and he’s the most unselfish player on the team,” Sartor says. “He really has a unique skill set in terms of basketball, and then he probably has the highest basketball IQ.

“It’s really amazing what God has blessed him with in terms of his talent, and I will say this, he understands that and understands that he can be better than he is. That’s why he works so hard. He’s not satisfied with where he is right now. He wants to be better. Just as important, he wants to make his teammates better.”

Flattering comparisons

Williamson’s windmill dunk in mid-December merited a spot in ESPN’s SportsCenter top 10 plays of the day. He also recently dropped 53 points in a 73-53 victory over an opponent that featured UNC signee Jalek Felton. Williamson’s only three misses in 28 shot attempts were from 3-point range, and he added 16 rebounds.

Afterward, Williamson was mobbed by young fans who wanted a picture taken with him, and he obliged as he usually does. Following a recent game in Asheville, Williamson promised a photograph with a young fan, but he first needed to join the Spartanburg Day team in the locker room. When Williamson emerged from the team meeting, the youngster was gone.

“That really bothered him,” Sampson says of her son.

“I don’t want anybody to think I’m so big I can’t take time with little kids,” Williamson told his mother. “I should have taken that picture with him.”

Naturally, comparisons already are coming. At 6-7 and 230 pounds, Williamson possesses the same large backside of former UNC star J.R. Reid. His ability to both handle the ball and glide to the basket remind his high school coach of LeBron James. His explosiveness around the rim draws comparisons to former NBA star Dominique Wilkins.

All such comparisons are unfair to Williamson, who still has another high school season of basketball to play following the current one. That does not mean those who have seen him play cannot make projections. One of those that seems to hold much merit is that Williamson could someday join a select group of basketball players who came to be known only by their first name.

There was Wilt, Kareem, Moses, Michael, Grant, Kobe and LeBron. Next in line could be Zion.

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