Basketball phenom Zion Williamson made his long-awaited NBA debut on Wednesday, January 22, against the San Antonio Spurs. After missing about half of his rookie NBA season while recovering from an injury, Zion’s debut certainly did not disappoint. He netted 22 points to tie Brandon Ingram for the team scoring lead, and also pulled down seven rebounds and notched three assists.
Though Zion’s New Orleans Pelicans took the loss to the Spurs, his 8-for-11 shooting performance in 18 minutes of play more than served as a wakeup call to the rest of the NBA and gave Pelicans fans some much-needed hope for the future.
The 19-year-old Williamson’s professional career is still in its infancy, but if his game matches the hype, basketball fans have a lot of greatness to look forward to. Zion is hardly a fly-under-the-radar NBA prospect, as his highlight-reel dunks were going viral before he even put on a Duke Blue Devils jersey for a one-and-done season of college ball in 2018. But even noting his popularity, there’s likely still a fair amount of Zion Williamson facts that you probably don’t know.
One thing we do know, however, is that Zion looks to be an NBA staple for a long time, so let’s take an opportunity to get to know the 2019 NBA No. 1 draft pick a little better.
Here’s a look at 15 things you (probably) didn’t know about Zion Williamson:
1. Zion Williamson Gained ‘The High School 100’
You’ve heard of the “freshman 15,” often coined to describe the 15 pounds freshman college students gain after moving away to school, but have you ever heard of a high school athlete gaining more than 100 pounds in two years? That’s what Zion did from his freshman to junior year in high school, though this was spurred by a growth spurt that saw him shoot from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-7. We’re not saying that “the high school 100” is always healthy or advised, but when you grow by nearly a foot within two years, it’s what you might get.
2. Zion Nearly Played College Basketball at Clemson
According to Zion’s stepdad, he was close to committing to play his college basketball at Clemson. Yes, Clemson, who took advantage of the proximity to where he played high school ball in South Carolina to gain an advantage in his recruitment. In the end, the Duke lure was too great for him to pass on, especially noting that Duke was putting together what it believed was a generational type of team with fellow stars like R.J. Barret and Cam Reddish.
The 2018-19 Duke team fell short of expectations, however, bowing out to Michigan State in the Elite 8 of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. It was actually a former Michigan State walk-on, Kenny Goins, who hit the game-winning 3-point shot for Michigan State as Zion, who was defending Goins, wasn’t able to close out on him fast enough.
3. Zion Had a Football Scholarship
Tom Izzo compared him to Khalil Mack, and he’s not the only one that believed he could play football. LSU’s tight end coach offered him a football scholarship.
4. He’s Named After a Mountain
While his 6-foot-7, 284-pound stature is a mountain on the basketball court, Zion was actually named after a mountain at birth. Jerusalem’s Mt. Zion, to be specific, which is an elevated point outside of the Old City.
5. He Once Played on an AAU Team with Kids Four Years His Senior
According to his mother, Zion was just five years old when he set the goal of becoming a professional basketball player and the No. 1 overall player in the country. His parents took this seriously and began to allocate the necessary resources so that Zion could reach his goals. This included a 5-year-old Zion Williamson playing on an AAU team for 9-year-olds. As you might expect, he was the only 5-year-old on the squad. Can you just imagine a little kindergarten Zion Williamson going up against kids four years older than him in the post?
6. He Owes a Big ‘Thank You’ to Drake
Like we said in the intro, Zion blew up thanks in part to his dunks going viral on social media. And one musician, the rapper Drake, is part of the reason for this. Drake has been a fan of Zion ever since he was dominating the competition in high school and posted a picture of himself with Zion’s jersey on in a 2017 Instagram post. Drake’s huge following was sure to produce some trickle-down effect on Zion himself, and it did.
Not only did Zion pick up millions of social media followers after Drake’s photo, but it helped him gain some serious exposure. We’re not saying people wouldn’t have eventually found out how much of a freak athlete he is, but this certainly accelerated the process.
7. Tom Izzo Once Compared Him to Khalil Mack
Standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 287 pounds will pretty much pose a mismatch for whoever an opposing team puts on you, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo knew as much before his team meeting Duke in the Elite 8 of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. But Izzo had a unique comparison for Zion — he compared him to Bears linebacker/defensive lineman Khalil Mack, another dominant athlete, albeit in a different sport. As we noted earlier, Izzo’s Spartans were able to edge Duke to reach the 2019 Final Four, but Zion still scored 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting.
8. He Played Point Guard Growing Up
Yes, believe it or not, Zion wasn’t always a 6-foot-7, 284-pound behemoth out there on the hardwood. In fact, growing up, he was one of the smaller kids on his team. While it may seem silly to think of Zion as a point guard at his current size and stature, consider the main duties of a point guard: ball handling, dribbling, shooting, and passing. You could make the argument that these fundamental skills were instilled during these key early developmental years, helping Zion become the great all-around player that he is today.
9. He Caused Nike’s Stock to Drop by $1 Billion After Injuring Himself at Duke
Surely you may recall that February 2019 Duke vs. UNC game where Zion blew out his Nike shoe and suffered a knee injury as a result of the spill he took less than one minute into the contest. But did you know that Nike’s stock took a massive $1 billion drop as a direct result of it? While basketball fans everywhere collectively held their breath, Nike sent its executives to the Duke campus immediately to make a custom replacement for the college phenom.
Zion would end up returning to Duke in time for the tournament, leading the Blue Devils to an ACC Tournament Championship, No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and trip to the Elite 8.
10. He Might Have Trolled Nike After the Aforementioned Injury
Speaking of Nike, soon after the whole aforementioned “shoe” incident, Zion posted a picture to his Instagram account where he and a friend were donning the apparel of one of Nike’s biggest competitors — Adidas. One explanation: Adidas did sponsor his high school basketball team and a former AAU team. But this may have been a bit more than just a coincidence when you consider what had recently happened on the court.
11. His Parents Are Athletic Too
Sometimes, being a good athlete just runs in the family. You could say that was the case with Zion to a certain extent. Yes, while he clearly worked his tail off to get to the point that he’s at, you could say sports were in the family too. His mother ran track and field in college for Livingstone, and his father was a football player at North Carolina State. Though not related by blood, his stepfather was a bit of an athlete too, having played college basketball at Clemson. Perhaps the latter familial tie also helps explain why Zion nearly became a Clemson Tiger.
12. Williamson Signed the Richest Shoe Deal for any NBA Rookie… Ever
A player of Zion’s caliber was sure to rack up the endorsement deals as soon as he turned pro and was no longer governed by the NCAA, and certainly, the richest of many endorsement deals are shoe deals. And even though it was a Nike shoe that led to his injury in college, Zion signed with Nike’s Jordan Brand for five years. Though terms of the deal were not disclosed, it’s believed to be the richest shoe endorsement deal for any NBA rookie. Additionally, sources say that he received offers in excess of $10 million per year from others that he passed on.
13. He Had an Insane Workout Routine at 9 Years Old
Can you imagine a 9-year-old waking up at 5 a.m. for anything but getting on a plane to go to Disney World? Well, Zion woke up every day at this time at age 9 for basketball training. That’s an insane level of dedication.
14. Zion Cam
Sensing that Zion was sure to be a huge audience draw during the 2019 NCAA Tournament, CBS had a “Zion Cam” that just followed the then-freshman phenom on the court in each Duke game of the tourney.
Though he was ranked behind two of his freshman Duke teammates by most recruiting outlets, it was Zion that reigned supreme at Duke in his one-and-done year. In addition to earning Freshman of the Year and All-American honors, he also earned National Player of the Year.
16. His Dunking Skills Helped Him Gain The National Spotlight In high School
Zion began gaining national exposure in high school. Williamson wowed crowds at the Jam Fest, which was part of the 2018 McDonald’s All American Game. A highlight of the fest was an off the backboard and between the legs stuff.
He took home the title with ease and gained more than a trophy. This display of dunks made it clear that Zion Williamson is someone to pay major attention to.