COLUMBIA, S.C. – The first thing you should know about Zion Williamson is that he’s 16 years old.
Not in the “wink-wink” kind of way, he was actually born on July 6, 2000.
If you think this is a random way to open a profile piece on one of the country’s best high school basketball players, you’re clearly not one of the 10 million-plus who have watched the highlight videos showing Williamson, a junior, dominating the opposition, be it his age, younger or older, in a way that truly personifies the cliché sports phrase “man amongst boys.”
So, no, he’s not secretly the much older assistant coach at Spartanburg Day School (Spartanburg, S.C.) reliving his glory days against teenagers.
Besides, none of the Griffins assistants were boasting 46-inch verticals on their best day.
“People always ask me if I’m really 16,” Williamson said with a laugh. “Even when I tell them that I am I still don’t think they believe it.”
Williamson is a 6-foot-8, 230-pound slab of manchild with a shoulders as wide as a small compact and calves straight out of the movie “300.”
“That’s so funny, people really think that?” Williamson’s mother Sharonda Sampson said. “I get that he’s a big guy, but if you look at him in the face, he looks even younger than 16.”
“Age-Gate” got a major boost Tuesday night at the Chick-fil-A Classic when Williamson broke the single-game scoring record, dropping 53 points in a win against Gray Collegiate (Columbia, S.C.).
Comedian Famouslos joked that he “need to see that boy’s birth certificate… Ain’t no way!”
“That was hilarious,” Williamson said of the viral video. “I’ve watched his videos forever, everybody does, then to get one made about me? Wow. That’s wild.
“I’m enjoying the moment. I’m just staying focused on what’s most important and that’s getting better every day. I don’t let everything else distract me; I have fun with it, but it doesn’t distract me.”
FOCUSED FROM THE START
Williamson doesn’t have the LeBron James story of a young phenom who everyone knew from kindergarten was a “can’t miss” player who would surely change the landscape of the sport.
Truth is, even you probably didn’t know Williamson existed this time last year.
“There weren’t too many people around a year ago,” Spartanburg Day School coach Lee Sartor said. “People like to say they were, but, trust me, they weren’t. They should’ve been, but they weren’t.”
Even colleges were slow to the draw; Williamson only had offers from in-state schools Clemson, South Carolina, Wofford and South Carolina-Upstate last December.
Sellout crowds? Puuuh-lease.
“Spartanburg Day is more of an academic school so even the kids at the school didn’t really come out,” Sampson said. “Definitely nothing even remotely close to what’s going on right now. No one really knew him, but he always had this goals from very early on.”
Age 5 to be exact.
That’s when Williamson laid out his goals to Sampson and his stepdad Lee Anderson: Go to college to play basketball and be the No. 1 player in the country.
“I won’t lie, I didn’t think I could do it,” Williamson said with a laugh. “I definitely hoped I could, but did I know? Nah.”
Immediately, Anderson began working with Williamson on his point guard skills. He was the only 5-year-old on the Sumter Falcons AAU team of 9-year -olds.
“He was pretty good, too,” Sampson recalled. “He would just shoot and that’s where he learned to pass. He was trained from day one to be a guard, that’s why he’s so versatile now.”
By age 9, Williamson was waking up at 5 a.m. every day getting shots up and running drills.
“We didn’t know how tall he’d be,” Sampson said. “I’m 5-foot-10 and his biological father is about 6-5 so we thought Zion would grow, but you just never know. We knew he’d be athletic though.”
He got that much honest.
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Williamson’s biological father, Lateef Williamson, played football at North Carolina State before ending up on the gridiron at Livingstone College in the 1970s. Anderson played basketball at Clemson in the 1970s and Sampson ran track at Livingstone College in the 1970s.
She regularly cleared 6 feet in the high jump, making her indirectly responsible for the hinge-loosening dunks Williamson uses his 46-inch vertical to throw down.
“You jumped 6 feet?” Williamson asked Sampson with a laugh. “Wow, I never knew that. Well, yeah, I guess I got it from her!”
Though she downplays it, as his middle school coach, Sampson could take even more credit for Williamson’s development.
She coached him in the seventh and eighth grades at Johnakin Middle School (Marion, S.C.), where he averaged 20 points a game. The team lost three games in two years.
“He was a pass-first point guard,” Sampson said. “If he was open, he’d take the shot, but he liked to make plays. After that, he just started growing and growing.”
From eighth grade to now, Williamson has grown 10 inches.
He’s drawn comparisons to everyone from past NBA greats like Rodney Rogers and Shawn Kemp to current stars like Zach Randolph and Draymond Green.
“It’s an honor to be compared to anyone on that level,” Williamson said. “They’ve been and are at where I want to be.”
Still, a major pet-peeve of his is the whole dunker label.
“I know that people know me for my dunks, but if you’ve seen me play you know that’s just one part of my game,” Williamson said. “I wanted to be in the dunk contest here at the Chick-fil-A, but I don’t want to just be known for that. So I’m on my ‘LeBron James thing’ now: I’m only an in-game dunker. I might do it during the summer for fun, but in a tournament where I’m focused on helping my team win I want that to be my only focus.”
Williamson warned everyone that this – the internet breaking highlight clips, the jaw-dropping dunks, No. 1 spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays, the utter dominance that is Zion Williamson – was coming.
On June 22, just four days after being named MVP of the prestigious NBPA Top 100 Camp, Williamson tweeted “I’m going to shock the world #Believeit”.
“I really meant that,” Williamson said. “My team won the championship at NBPA Camp, which I loved, and I got MVP and I knew that I could do this at this level. I knew I could do more. I just wanted to see how far I could take it.”
Last season, Williamson averaged 28 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks to lead Spartanburg Day School to its first state championship.
He ended the summer with a dunk contest title and another MVP performance, this time at the Under Armour Elite 24 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
As for those goals he set 11 years ago; it’s safe bet that he’s going to play college basketball with heavyweights like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona and Kentucky, among many others, all giving intense chase.
The No. 1 overall player part? He’s still got his work cut out for him there.
ESPN ranks Williamson No. 3 overall behind Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.) forward Marvin Bagley III and New Albany (Ind.) shooting guard Romeo Langford.
“It keeps me motivated not being No. 1,” Williamson said. “I know that stuff isn’t everything; I just have goals I want to accomplish. It doesn’t bother me, just gotta keep working.”
ESPN recruiting director Paul Biancardi conceded that “at this point” Williamson “is probably the best player in terms of production.”
“He’s doing it on a consistent basis and against everyone,” Biancardi said. “His game touches so many different categories. As a prospect, it’s a different thing, but he’s even growing there. Zion is a special player there’s no question about that.”
In terms of popularity, Williamson would hold down the top spot among high school hoopers, regardless of class.
C’mon, Williamson is one of the 1,313 people that Drake follows on Instagram.
Rock star stuff.
Blame it on his highlight clips. Blame it on his abundance of rim-rocking dunks or that, on any given night, Williamson is a legitimate threat to drop 50-plus.
As one Western Conference NBA scout puts it, “He’s got things to work on, but he’s got a shot to be special beyond high school. He’s got that alpha dog in him and that trait never disappoints.”
Grown men run behind him after games screaming his name hoping he’ll join their selfie; Tuesday night’s game had a line of more than 1,500 fans standing outside in freezing temperatures three hours before the opening tip and his Instagram following is at 86,000 and counting.
That’s more than the two players ranked in front of him by 65,000-plus.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” said Williamson, who is averaging 37 points, 13 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, two steals and two assists this season. “I won’t lie, I enjoy the attention. I love when I’m in the warmup lines and I hear someone say, ‘Show me something Zion!’ I don’t need the attention, but, yeah, I like it. Who wouldn’t? But I’m far from cocky.”
Sampson makes sure of that.
Every night at 10 p.m. she strolls over to his room, holds her hand out and Williamson forks over his cellphone. He’s also got to keep his grades up, clean his room and take the garbage out every day.
These rules are nonnegotiable.
“He does everything with a smile, too,” Sampson said. “When all of the attention came I thought I’d have to constantly remind him not go get bigheaded, but Zion just isn’t built like that. Literally, the only thing that bothers him is when he’s not able to sign autographs and take pictures with kids. He loves doing that. He loves to smile and that makes him smile.”
Tuesday night after Williamson’s 53-point game, a line of more than 200 fans – half kids, half adults – waited for a half-hour to meet him, but when the line began to swell to the unmanageable point police officers made everyone clear the gym.
“I hated that,” Williamson said. “It means so much to kids and it means a lot to me, too. I try and get to every kid. I can remember when I was hoping I’d get to this point, but I’m at an even higher point then I dreamed about.”
Ironic that Sampson named Williamson after Mount Zion in the Bible, the highest point in Jerusalem.
That said, Williamson doesn’t’ feel like he’s arrived.
Yeah, the screaming fans are great, buddying-up with Drake is exciting and spending three-hours with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is memorable, but he’s yet to shake hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and don a fitted cap of one of the 30 NBA franchises.
“I’ve got so much to work on and get better at,” he said. “People don’t understand how hard it is to get to the NBA and that’s where I want to be. It’s taken hard work to get to this point. I was waking up at 5 a.m. when I was 9 working. I know that I’ll only have to work harder if I want to make it to where I want to be. But I’m definitely not complaining.”
Too busy smiling.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY