The hype started long before Zion Williamson first stepped foot on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium. It built throughout his time as a four-year varsity standout at Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina, turning him into the most lauded recruit since February 2002, when Sports Illustrated nicknamed then-high school junior LeBron James “The Chosen One."
I still remember rushing to check my iPhone for an update on Williamson’s college decision after leaving the movie theater on a Saturday night in January 2018 to see he had chosen Duke.
More than 14 months since that day, it’s safe to say Williamson lived up to — or even exceeded — expectations. With a unique blend of superhuman-like size, strength and athleticism at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, we’ve never seen a player quite like him.
Williamson averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists as a first-year to lead the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight. Though Duke — a favorite throughout the year to win the NCAA title — came up short in a regional final loss to Michigan State, Williamson was sensational throughout the year, and his fame and media attention continued to grow as a result.
The phenom was named a first-team All-American, ACC Player of the Year, Associated Press Player of the Year and Naismith Trophy winner, among other honors. Williamson, the projected No.1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was undoubtedly the most exciting player in college basketball this season.
Still, whenever I’d scroll through Twitter during the season, I’d see tweets plastered with “eye roll” emojis, suggesting the amount of media coverage Williamson received was unnecessary or somehow unwarranted. (Admittedly, a large portion of my Twitter timeline is biased UNC students.)
To those who feel that way, I encourage you to think about this: What kind of media attention do you think LeBron James would garner if he was coming out of high school in 2019?
During James’ senior year of high school, ESPN televised a game between his St. Vincent-St. Mary team and top-ranked Oak Hill Academy on Dec. 12, 2002. The broadcast marked ESPN’s first televised regular-season prep game since 1989. The network sent top-tier talent in to call the game: Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale, Dan Shulman and Bill Walton. The spectacle resulted in more than 1.5 million viewers — the third highest-rated basketball game in ESPN2 history at the time.