COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The comfortable quietness at the Olympic Training Center was first broken by a loud smack against the backboard. A collective gasp came next, followed by a few unrestrained howls seconds later. If only for a moment, USA Basketball junior minicamp was frozen in disbelief, with the entire gym gazing at each other to confirm what it just saw.
This was the sound of Zion Williamson and the awe that he inspires.
Jyare Davis, a 15-year-old from Delaware, saw nothing but a clear lane and an open basket as he turned the corner. What he didn’t see was the 6’6, 272-pound teenage wrecking ball behind him. As Davis went up for a layup, Williamson slammed the ball against the glass, sprinted the length of the floor, and got the ball back in time for a powerful two-handed dunk.
You could find the entire sequence on social media minutes later. This is Zion Williamson after all, a young phenom ostensibly from Spartanburg, S.C. who might as well live in the smartphones of basketball fans across the world.
Williamson has the body of an NFL defensive lineman and the explosiveness of a young Dominique Wilkins. His incredible highlights have earned him more than one million Instagram followers, a budding friendship with Drake, and hysterical crowds at every game he plays. He came to Colorado Springs in part to escape that.
There is no hype here, only hoops. The minicamp brings 54 of the top high school players in the country together under one roof. Williamson is one of 18 seniors looking for a spot on the Hoop Summit roster, while the rest of the camp is made up of sophomores and juniors trying out for USA Basketball’s U17 World Cup team.
The relative seclusion of this event makes it a fascinating setting for Williamson. The frenzy he typically causes has no place here. Instead, there’s a renewed focus on Williamson as a basketball player ... as opposed to Williamson as an internet sensation. The coaches and recruiting analysts in attendance aren’t looking for dunks; they’re looking for skill development.
Can Williamson make a jump shot? How’s his off-hand? Does he make his teammates better? And most importantly: Does the modern NBA have room for a player with the height of a shooting guard, the heft of a center, and a jump shot that remains a question mark?
“People keep asking who he’s like,” said Rivals’ Eric Bossi, who has covered recruiting for 14 years. “Well, no one really. He’s the first Zion. He’s such a unique player that we still really don’t know how some of these things we’ve seen will translate. We’ve not really seen someone like him before.”
Williamson was talking on FaceTime with a friend as he walked around Las Vegas this summer. When he hung up, he noticed a man behind him. He had been following Williamson for nearly 10 minutes.
“I’m like sir, you didn’t have to follow me for two blocks just to get a picture,” Williamson said. “He like ‘no no, it’s fine. I didn’t want you to give up your phone call.’”
This is the life of Zion Williamson and the mania he causes. There was no better example of it than the chaotic scene in the gym when he squared off against LaMelo Ball during that same weekend in Sin City.
By all accounts, this was a spectacle unlike any ever seen at the AAU level. Police officers had to barricade the doors and push back against a standing-room-only crowd that was reportedly filing in seven rows deep. NBA stars like Damian Lillard, Andrew Wiggins, and LaMelo’s older brother, Lonzo Ball, were all in attendance. LeBron James tried to get in but thought better of it when he saw the circus that had transpired.
Williamson called it “the craziest game I’ve ever played in.”
“But if I’m being realistic, that wasn’t a normal basketball game,” he said. “It was up and down up and down, just trying to outscore each other.”
This is why Williamson needed to be isolated in an environment like USA Basketball minicamp to truly be evaluated. At the high school and grassroots level, Williamson is by far the most talented player on his team. Everything is built around his unique skills. It won’t be that way for long. Bossi wrote that Williamson had more to prove than anyone at the onset of the camp.
“We’ve never really seen him play with other great players in a structured environment,” said Bossi. “What happens when he plays with those guys for entire weekends, game after game, and it’s not just the Zion show?”
For four practices spread across two days, Williamson played with more passion and aggression than anyone at the camp. He doesn’t coast on his body and his athleticism, he uses it as a weapon. He is a marvel in the open court, where he looks like a runaway train with that combination of size and speed. It’s the one part of his game that will translate at any level.
Williamson plays with a fury that has rare precedent in this sport. To see him crush a block or obliterate a dunk is to see Bo Jackson run over Brian Bosworth or Jadeveon Clowney knock the helmet off a poor Michigan running back. Basketball players are supposed to be lean and lanky ... not a mile wide, as strong as a bull, and capable of whipping that massive frame through the air for 360 windmill slams.
“I don’t know if that’s something you can learn,” Williamson said with a smile when asked to explain his athleticism. “I thank God that I can move the way I do at this size.”
Williamson knows his strengths as a player. When he gets the ball, he’s driving left and going to the hoop. Matched up against some of the best players in the country, Williamson was still able to get to his spots whenever he wanted. He has great touch around the rim and is able to contort his body to finish from a variety of angles.
He’s also a willing and skilled passer. Williamson described himself as a “point forward” and noted his ball-handling ability as his most underrated attribute. It showed throughout the camp. He can push the ball off a rebound and doesn’t hesitate to swing the ball on the perimeter. He also made some crafty high-low passes when playing with a more traditional big man from the top of the key.
Williamson’s other major strengths come as a rebounder and shot blocker. He crashes the glass with reckless abandon on both ends and shows off both a phenomenal sense of timing and a nose for the ball. There was no one at the camp who was able to match up with him physically.
“To have such an explosive burst carrying with that type of dense weight is a scary thing,” said Jerry Meyer, Director of Basketball Scouting for 247Sports. “It’s freakish. He’s unsettling.”
Of course, Williamson won’t be playing against teens forever. That’s why everyone agrees the biggest area for improvement in his game is his jump shot.
Williamson might not have taken a jump shot during scrimmages the entire weekend. Everything was to the hole. The question is if Williamson is reluctant to shoot because he can’t do it, or because he doesn’t need to. His powerful drives to the rim work against high schoolers, but what about when he’s going up against Kawhi Leonard two years from now?
“The development of his outside shot is going to be the No. 1 key in determining what his value is going to be at the highest level,” said Meyer. “If you can’t shoot, it’s tough.
“But I think Zion is going to be able to shoot,” Meyer continued. “It’s not a broken shot. He just doesn’t have to shoot much. He gets to where he wants to get, which is to the rim. He finishes with touch. Looks good at the free throw line. I expect him to improve as a shooter. But obviously we don’t know to what extent.”
Williamson plays so aggressively that there are times when it’s easy to worry about the safety of the other campers, especially the young sophomores and juniors. For his part, Williamson doesn’t seem concerned.
“My mentality is killers kill,” Williamson said. “Yeah these kids are younger, but in two years hopefully I can be playing in the NBA. LeBron’s not gonna say, ‘oh you’re a rookie so I’m gonna take it easy.’ You always have to play hard.”
Playing hard is not an issue for Williamson — who is considering Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Clemson, and South Carolina for his college decision. The jump shot is, and his place in the league might be, too. Williamson measured with only a 6’10 wingspan and an 8’7 standing reach. Those are the measurements of an NBA wing. Yet, his absurd 272-pound frame and limited perimeter shooting ability is more fitting of a power forward or even a center.
Is there really a place in the league for a 6’6 big man who lacks elite length if his jumper doesn’t improve? Jonathan Givony of ESPN (formerly DraftExpress) thinks so. He recently projected Williamson as the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA draft. To find a spot for Williamson in the league, Givony said teams will simply have to be creative.
“Draymond Green is a guy that comes up,” Givony said. “He’s a similar height. Draymond is a lot longer than Zion, which helps a lot. But you wonder if he can play that kind of role.
“Draymond at that age was really overweight. He was not shooting jumpers at all. He really wasn’t shooting jumpers until his senior year of college. But if you surround him with the right guys and put him in the right system, he does so many other things. He’s not exactly a Draymond, but he can be that kind of guy where he plays a unique role in the NBA as a four or five.”
Penny Hardaway, who was an assistant coach at the camp, came up with another comparison.
“He has a lot of Charles Barkley in him,” Hardaway said. “He has a lot more athleticism on the court than Charles did, but his mannerisms on the court are similar.”
It all comes together to make Williamson one of the most compelling NBA prospects to come through the American pipeline, well, ever. The holes in his game are real, at least at age 17. He also offers an intoxicating package of size and athleticism that’s impossible to ignore.
Zion WIlliamson is not easy to categorize. It's unclear what position he will play in the NBA — there's not a lot of precedent for a guy like him. But what is without doubt is that hush over the gym, the eerie quiet, when he shows what Zion, and only Zion, can do.