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How the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson went from high school mixtape star to can’t-miss No. 1 NBA Draft pick

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Williamson is far from an overnight sensation. This is how the new Pelicans No. 1 pick became the NBA’s next can’t-miss superstar.

The legend of Zion Williamson was born out of grainy footage shot on shaky cellphone cameras. It spread like a virus, infecting millions of social media users stupefied at what they were watching. Here was a 16-year-old whipping his body through the air for windmill dunks, 360 dunks, sometimes even 360 windmill dunks. He was a staple on SportsCenter by his junior year. Drake was wearing his high school jersey before he ever went to prom.

And now, he’s officially the new face of the New Orleans Pelicans after they selected him No. 1 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. With Anthony Davis now on Los Angeles, this is officially Williamson’s team, franchise, and city. New general manager David Griffin is now on the clock to build a winner around him.

Williamson was already a national sensation before he arrived at Duke, but he was no sure thing in the eyes of NBA scouts. Most recruiting services ranked him as the third-best incoming freshman on his own team.

That changed during his five months on campus in Durham, when Williamson pieced together the most thoroughly dominant season the modern era of college basketball has ever seen. Once Williamson actually stepped on the floor in college, there was no debate that he’d be the No. 1-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Williamson is the first superstar of the social media era, a player who transformed from a mixtape legend to a can’t-miss NBA stud before our eyes. His presence not only overshadowed his talented Duke teammates, but often times the institution of college basketball itself.

As he takes the next step in his career, it’s time to look back at how Williamson became larger than life. This is the journey that took him from humble beginnings in South Carolina to the brink of becoming the NBA’s next phenom with the Pelicans.

High School Basketball: Zion Williamson Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Williamson’s birthday is July 6, 2000

He was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, to a mother who ran track at nearby Livingstone College and a father who was recruited to play defensive line on the football field at NC State. He was named after Mount Zion in the bible.

Williamson and his mother would move to Spartanburg, South Carolina, when he was young, the town where he was raised. It was his mother who coached him early in his basketball career. When it was time for high school, he enrolled at Spartanburg Day School, a small private school known more for academics than athletics. This is where Williamson’s star would grow.

Williamson’s high school career began modestly

As a freshman, Williamson was reportedly a 6’3, 175-pound guard whose most prominent scholarship offer came from nearby Wofford College. As he entered high school, he played on a grassroots team with Ja Morant, the eventual Murray State superstar who the Grizzlies took No. 2-overall behind Williamson in the 2019 NBA Draft. At the time, no one realized the immense talent of either player.

As a high school sophomore, Williamson grew three inches and led Spartanburg Day School to a state championship. That’s when his profile started to blow up.

How Williamson became a high school star

Williamson’s ascent happened during spring grassroots (or “AAU”) sessions heading into his junior year. Playing in the Adidas league, he started to earn national acclaim after a breakout performance during a circuit stop in Atlanta, where he averaged 23.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in four games. He was suddenly considered a top-20 prospect in his class.

“My high school team, we don’t play a national schedule, so college coaches didn’t really come out, but after the second Adidas session in Atlanta, that’s when my college offers started to blow up,” Williamson told USA Today in 2016.

An early mixtape from spring 2016 shows just how under the radar Williamson was. The announcer couldn’t even pronounce his name correctly.

Williamson saw his stock hit a new level when he went to NBAPA Top 100 Camp a few months later. He was named MVP of the camp and emerged as top-five recruit in his class.

Williamson closed his summer by winning MVP of the Under Armour Elite 24 national all-star game in New York. He also won the dunk contest there.

Williamson was a full blown phenom as a high school junior

Williamson’s junior season began with an offer from Duke and a visit from coach Mike Krzyzewski. At the time, Clemson — where his stepfather played basketball — was still considered the front-runner in his recruitment.

Williamson made SportsCenter as the No. 1 play in the Top 10 in February 2016:

Around the same time, Drake posted a photo on Instagram wearing his jersey:

At this point, Williamson had become a national sensation. He first appeared on SB Nation in July 2017 with this block:

Later that month, we wrote that Williamson was the best dunker of his generation.

Williamson vs. LaMelo Ball was the craziest “AAU” game ever

At the height of both Ball family mania and Williamson’s high school hype, Williamson faced off against LaMelo Ball in a grassroots game in Las Vegas on July 27, 2017. The game created a chaotic atmosphere in the gym. With NBA stars like Damian Lillard and Andrew Wiggins sitting courtside, the building was so over capacity that LeBron James was turned away at the door.

Everyone from college coaches like Bill Self to recruiting analysts agreed there had never been anything like this before. It only helped raise Williamson’ star to another level. You can watch highlights of the Williamson vs. Ball game here:

We watched Williamson at USA Basketball camp in 2017

Read our feature on Williamson from October 2017 at USA Basketball camp. Surrounded by the best players in the country, Williamson showed that his incredible highlights weren’t simply a product of going against overmatched teenagers.

Williamson committed to Duke on Jan. 20, 2018

Duke had already landed two top-five recruits in Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett (the consensus No. 1) plus another five-star prospect in Tre Jones when Williamson made his college decision. Clemson was considered the favorite as the hometown school and also because of the family connection with his stepfather. Duke did not have much buzz going into the announcement, though we wrote it would be the best on-court fit for Williamson at the time.

Williamson surprised the college basketball world by picking Duke.

Immediately, there was talk that Duke had the best recruiting class of the modern era.

Early 2019 NBA mock drafts didn’t have Williamson at No. 1

That was supposed to be Barrett.

Williamson was slotted anywhere from No. 2 to just outside the top five in most early mock drafts. But as soon as Duke went on its preseason exhibition trip to Canada, it became clear to anyone paying attention that Williamson was going to be as dominant as he was unique.

Williamson’s weight blew people’s minds

Williamson weighed in at 285 pounds in the preseason, which would have made him the second-heaviest player in the NBA this past season behind 7’3 center Boban Marjanovic. Reminder that Williamson measured in at 6’7.

Williamson put on a show during Duke’s exhibition trip in Canada

It only took three preseason games for Williamson to show how special he was going to be at Duke. After the Blue Devils’ exhibition slate was over, we wrote that Williamson was going to be college basketball’s next mega-star.

Williamson’s Duke debut against Kentucky was legendary

Duke opened the season at No. 4 in the AP preseason poll before taking on No. 2 Kentucky in its first game at the Champions Classic on a neutral floor in Indianapolis. Duke was actually a one-point underdog in this game. It’s easy to forget that now after the Blue Devils beat Kentucky by 34 points, giving John Calipari the worst defeat of his coaching career at any level.

Williamson finished with 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting in the win. As Barrett and Reddish also delivered great performances, there was talk that Duke could go 40-0. That dream would only last two weeks.

Duke lost its first game to Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational

So much for 40-0. After winning their first five games of the season, including a victory over eventual Final Four team Auburn, the Blue Devils were upset by Gonzaga in the title game of the Maui Invitational. Williamson finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds on 8-of-17 shooting, which amounted to one of the least efficient games of his college career. It was Barrett took over the offense for Duke down the stretch, but missed his last five shots.

Little did anyone know at the time that Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke would end the season as college basketball’s second most productive player behind Williamson.

Williamson’s best blocks showed he was great on defense, too

The country quickly learned Williamson was so much more than just a dunker. He was a tremendous defensive player, racking up blocks and steals and helping Duke finish No. 6 overall in defensive efficiency.

So many of Williamson’s most impressive plays at Duke came on the defensive end. Who could forget this block against Virginia with LeBron James sitting in the front row?

There was also this tremendous block against Virginia Tech in the NCAA tournament.

Williamson’s Duke highlights alone would have made him a star

From the 360 dunk against Clemson to his windmill in the Maui Invitational, Williamson’s top highlights were so incredible that he would have been a staple on social media timelines and SportsCenter’s Top 10 even if his game wasn’t so complete.

Instead, NBA scouts found a player whose stats were even more impressive than his highlights.

Williamson’s injury and broken shoe against North Carolina froze the sports world

Duke’s first meeting with North Carolina on Feb. 20 was the most anticipated game of the college regular season. With former President Barack Obama sitting courtside, Williamson suffered the knee sprain heard around the world just moments after the opening tip. Williamson’s foot busted through his Nike shoe as he made a cut to the basket, ending his night and leaving the entire basketball world wondering if he would shut it down for the season to remain healthy ahead of the NBA Draft.

Williamson returned from injury in the ACC tournament

And he was immediately great. After missing three weeks with the injury. Williamson made his return in the opening round of the ACC tournament against Syracuse and played a perfect game: 29 points, 14 rebounds, and five steals on 13-of-13 shooting from the field.

After beating North Carolina and Florida State, Duke would win the ACC tournament and head into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1-overall seed in the field.

Duke’s NCAA tournament run fell short in the Elite Eight

The Blue Devils won at the buzzer against UCF in the round of 32 and again vs. Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16, with Williamson leading the way. Krzyzewski’s squad would meet its match in the Elite Eight against Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Despite Williamson finishing with 24 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks, and three steals, Duke lost, 68-67. With the game on the line, Krzyzewski drew up a play for Barrett, who was fouled but missed a free throw to tie.

Duke had championship-or-bust expectations ever since that opening game against Kentucky. Failing to make the Final Four with arguably the most dominant player of his career felt like a disappointment for Krzyzewski.

Williamson’s Duke stats showed how versatile he could be

Simply put, Williamson’s freshman season at Duke was the most statistically dominant campaign college basketball has seen in its modern era. Here is a small sampling:

Williamson is finally ready for the NBA

We can’t wait to watch him in New Orleans. Williamson has lived up the hype from the very moment he entered the public consciousness. Best of all? He’s just getting started.