Zion Williamson is going to be the biggest thing in college basketball next season. On Saturday, the most famous high school athlete in the world will finally make his recruiting decision.
Williamson is choosing among the usual suspects — Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina — as well as a pair of local schools in South Carolina and Clemson. The Spartanburg, South Carolina native is going to be a star wherever he goes, but this decision is particularly compelling for one reason: Williamson’s game is so unique, he needs to be surrounded by the right teammates to maximize his potential.
We haven’t seen a player quite like Williamson before. At 6’6, 275 pounds, he has the height of a shooting guard and the weight of a center. He’s one of the most explosive dunkers ever at the high school level, but he struggles to shoot from the perimeter with consistency.
What does the ideal fit for Williamson look like?
Williamson feels like a natural four with the ability to play five in small ball lineups at the college level. If you could draw up the perfect situation for him, it would look something like this:
- A veteran point guard who can run pick-and-roll, shoot off the dribble, and is more of a facilitator than a scorer.
- Two knockdown shooters on the wings, with one comfortable as a secondary ball handler and playmaker and the other who acts as a defensive ace on the perimeter.
- A center who can step away from the basket and hit a jump shot (think current UCLA center Thomas Welsh). Ideally, there would also be a bouncy, shot-blocking forward on the bench to give the team a different look.
Which of Williamson’s five finalists does he fit best at? Let’s break down the options.
South Carolina is a fine program. Frank Martin is one of the sport’s great coaches. He proved it last season by leading the Gamecocks on a shocking run to the Final Four as a No. 7 seed. Even after losing their two best players to the NBA — P.J. Dozier and Sindarius Thornwell — the Gamecocks will still have a chance to make the tournament this season, especially after upsetting Kentucky on Tuesday.
Still, we’d put the Gamecocks last for two reasons: They already have a veteran front-court in place, and they don’t have a ton of returning shooters on the perimeter.
Williamson will be better as a four or five than on the wing at the college level. USC already has Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar entrenched at those positions. The addition of Brian Bowen will help, if he’s eligible, but South Carolina just doesn’t have the type of dynamic guards to help set up Williamson that the rest of the finalists do.
John Calipari grooms NBA stars as well as anyone. That’s one thing Kentucky definitely has going for it. The question is whether next year’s Wildcats team will have more shooting than this year’s squad, which struggles badly to hit shots from the perimeter. Here’s what we know:
- Point guard Quade Green should be back for his sophomore year, and he’s hitting 40 percent from deep this season. He’ll be joined by five-star recruit Immanuel Quickley, a long, athletic guard whose jump shot remains a question mark. Williamson and Quickley have hinted they want to play together.
- Kentucky has a pair of five-star wings coming in with Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson. Herro, a former Wisconsin commit, is known as one of the better shooters in this class. Johnson hit only 23 percent of his threes on the EBYL this season, but his stroke looked good at USA Basketball junior minicamp in October.
- No one knows what’s going to happen with the Kentucky frontcourt. Wenyen Gabriel, Nick Richards, and P.J. Washington all could be back or they could all leave for the draft. Gabriel’s shooting could make him an intriguing stretch five next to Williamson.
Kentucky always has so much roster turnover that it’s hard to figure out the supporting cast at this point. One thing is for sure: Williamson would be an absolute phenom in Lexington. Kentucky might not have a true superstar this year, but it will next season if Williamson picks the ‘Cats.
Williamson at Clemson would be the equivalent of Trae Young at Oklahoma: the local kid staying home and choosing to create his own legacy. Clemson is far from a traditional basketball power, but the Tigers are in the midst of a great season right now at 15-3, ranked No. 20 in the polls.
Leading scorer Marcquise Reed should be back for his senior season as a 6’3 guard who shoots over 40 percent from deep. Third leading scorer Shelton Mitchell will be back as a senior, too, and he’s a worse shooter (32 percent from three) but superior passer (4.3 assists per game). Elijah Thomas, a 6’9, 250-pound big man, will also be a senior. He’s a traditional post scorer who has not attempted a three this season.
Unfortunately, Clemson will be losing Donte Grantham and Gabe DeVoe to graduation, a pair of senior guards who can really shoot and would have fit great with Williamson. Head coach Brad Brownell has been successful on the transfer market, though, so it’s too early to really know what this roster is going to look like.
There should be a lot to like about North Carolina for Williamson. Cameron Johnson returns as a combo forward who can fill it up from the outside, as evidence by the six three-pointers he hit this week against Clemson. Luke Maye is a stretch option in the frontcourt. Kenny Williams will be back, too, as an off-guard who is shooting 42 percent from deep.
The big loss for North Carolina is senior point guard Joel Berry II. He’ll be replaced by a sophomore-to-be Jalek Felton, as well as incoming freshman Coby White. UNC also has another legit five-star recruit coming in with wing Nassir Little.
Carolina currently has three freshman centers who could all play next to Williamson. Or UNC just goes “small” with Maye and Zion. As long as the point guard situation gets figured out, Williamson could be surrounded by the shooting he needs in Chapel Hill.
Kansas is losing its best player, point guard Devonte’ Graham, to graduation. The Jayhawks are losing their best shooter, too, in fellow senior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. In their place comes a wave of transfers and impact freshmen who should give Bill Self the ability to play with a ton of lineup combinations.
- Point guard will be handled by Charlie Moore, who hit 35 percent of his threes as a freshman at Cal last season. Devon Dotson — the No. 26 recruit in ESPN’s rankings — is coming aboard, too. Dotson is another shorter guard who wins with skill and toughness over size.
- Malik Newman (35 percent from three) should be back at shooting guard. He’ll be joined by five-star recruit Quentin Grimes, who has a reputation as a crafty three-level scorer. There’s also Marcus Garrett, a long-armed guard who has been up and down in his freshman season and has hit only 5-of-26 shots from three.
- At the forward positions, Kansas can choose from Memphis transfers Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson, Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe, and potentially Lagerald Vick, though it’s possible he turns pro. Neither of the Lawsons is a great shooter, but Dedric in particular can be a stud. At 6’9, 230 pounds, he averaged 19.2 points per game for Memphis last year.
- Kansas’ frontcourt is currently paper thin, but that could change next year if Billy Preston finally gets on the court and Silvio De Sousa is ready to contribute. Udoka Azubuike is expected to return as starting center.
Kansas did well with Andrew Wiggins and Josh Jackson, and it would do well with Williamson, too. The fit alongside the Lawson brothers seems a bit awkward, but the best players will play. Williamson would be great in Lawrence.
No school has ever signed the top three players in one class. If Williamson picks Duke, Mike Krzyzewski will have done it.
Duke’s class already includes No. 1 recruit R.J. Barrett, a 6’6 Canadian guard, and Cam Reddish, a 6’7 wing who can score from three levels. Duke has its point guard of the future lined up, too, in Tre Jones, the younger brother of former star Tyus Jones.
Williamson would slide naturally into the four spot that Marvin Bagley III will vacate. He would have Javin DeLaurier next to him at center, and maybe Marques Bolden, too. Duke appears to have a serious opening in the frontcourt next year, and Williamson would be the perfect fit. It’s easy to imagine him logging lots of minutes at the five given how much Coach K loves small ball.
The only question is if Barrett, Reddish, and Williamson could all be happy sharing the ball together. Right now, they are the projected top three picks in the 2019 NBA draft by ESPN.
Williamson recruiting prediction
These finalists are incredibly tough for me to rank, so I can’t imagine how a 17-year-old like Williamson feels. Clemson has become the Crystal Ball favorite, and that would be a lot of fun. The Tigers’ roster just has too many question marks at the moment for me to rank them No. 1.
Here’s my order:
6. South Carolina
2. North Carolina
Any of the top four choices would be a great for Williamson. This is a fascinating recruitment. We’ll know how it ends soon.