Zion Williamson’s legend grows with every game these days, with each new thundering dunk and every stunning new feat of elevation. It has been this way for several years now, with Williamson the featured actor in a growing collection of viral clips that show a player with the skills to outrun almost anyone, to catch almost anything, to challenge almost anybody. Even his lowest moments — the sneaker that couldn’t hold him, the injured knee that cost him five games — have somehow morphed into highlights. But Williamson, an 18-year-old Duke freshman, has been making memorable moments for years. A group of New York Times reporters tracked down some of the people who were present for a few of them, to ask them about the memories that stand out the most.
The Time the Recruiting Expert Got It Wrong
Forgive Tom Konchalski.
The publisher of High School Basketball Illustrated first observed Zion Williamson in person at the Elite 24, an all-star showcase for the nation’s top prep prospects, on Aug. 20, 2016. The court at Pier 2 in Brooklyn Bridge Park was the stage, and Williamson was 10 for 10 from the field, scored 23 points and shared most valuable player honors. Konchalski was impressed.
To Konchalski’s well-trained eye — in five decades he had amassed an inventory of reports that stretched from Michael Jordan to LeBron James — Williamson, who had just turned 16, appeared to be an interior technician, a player at ease turning on his defender to make it to the rim for understated finishes. Because of Williamson’s body type, Konchalski considered him a left-handed Jamal Mashburn, a reference to the beefy Bronx product who played 11 seasons in the N.B.A.
When Konchalski sat down at his typewriter after the Elite 24 to describe Williamson’s effort, he wrote that the “6-foot-5 junior Zion Williamson, the master of quiet domination, provided a bit of fresh air.”
Looking back, Konchalski says now, he got it all wrong.
“I’m wiping off copious amounts of egg from my face,” he said. Williamson, he knows, “is anything but quiet.”
The Time They Wouldn’t Let LeBron in the Door
The first time LeBron James showed up to watch Zion Williamson, they wouldn’t let him in the door.
It was July 2017, and James, once a transcendent teenage talent himself, went to see Williamson, the next big thing, at a showcase in Las Vegas. Williamson’s team, South Carolina Supreme, was playing Big Baller Brand, which featured LaMelo Ball, a brother of Lakers guard Lonzo Ball. It was, by summer youth basketball standards, a must-see event.
James, of course, wasn’t the only one interested in that confluence of basketball stardust. The N.B.A. players Damian Lillard, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray and Thon Maker were in the gym by the time James arrived, adding buzz to a crowd of more than 4,000 that threatened to swamp a court configured to hold less than half that many.
Even in warm-ups, the excitement was palpable. The fans oohed and aahed as Williamson tossed balls high in the air and dunked them; many spectators held cellphones, the better to share video clips of a scene that was quickly called the “craziest A.A.U. game ever.”
But James never saw any of it. With fans standing a dozen deep, nearly spilling onto the court from every direction, he and his group were told that just letting him into the gym constituted a security risk. A teenager’s mere presence, it seemed, had squeezed out basketball’s biggest star. James was told he couldn’t come in.
“We shut him down,” an Adidas marketing executive told CBS Sports at the time. “The corners were 500 deep. That’s where it got insane.”
It would be a year and a half before James got to see Williamson play in person. In February, he took a 35-minute flight from Philadelphia to Charlottesville, Va., and watched from courtside as Williamson, playing for Duke, went for 18 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in a win against Virginia. Williamson’s athleticism, James declared, was “ridiculous.”
The Time a Low Pass Turned Into a Windmill Dunk
Bishop Richardson was averaging about three alley-oop assists to Williamson every game when their team, Spartanburg (S.C.) Day School, arrived at Ben Lippen School in Columbia, S.C., for a game during Williamson’s junior year.
Williamson dunked a lot back then, and he had recorded at least two slams in the first half that had the gym rocking. “I remember it vividly,” Williamson said last week. “Their student section was really into the game, talking a lot.”
The real highlight, though, was still to come. With Spartanburg ahead by 39 points, Richardson, a spindly guard who had played varsity since the eighth grade, found himself jogging easily up the right sideline when he spotted Williamson closing menacingly down the other side of the court. He tried another lob; he knew the pass didn’t have to be perfect.
“If you threw it anywhere near the rim,” Richardson said, “he was going to get it.”
On this occasion, Richardson’s toss arrived well below the rim. But that enabled Williamson to do something outrageous: He rose into the air, reached out with two hands to grab the incoming pass at about shoulder height, and — still rising, now high enough to peer inside the rim he was about to shake — used one sweeping, circular motion to bring the ball down to his waist and then back up to the left side of his body before ramming it through the basket with his left hand.
The crowd erupted.
“I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow, I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that, let alone be a part of it,’” Richardson said. “People were falling out of the bleachers.”
The dunk made it onto highlight reels and national sports shows within hours, but Richardson did not see a replay until the next day, when he and teammates sneaked a peek in a study hall.
“I wish I could take credit for it,” Richardson said, “but it was completely accidental.”
The Time His Vertical Leap Was Off the Charts
Vertical leap is measured using a simple contraption: a tall pole with a series of long, metal fingers that project horizontally from it on top of one another — narrow wings stacked up, up, up, at consistent increments. It may seem lo-fi, but it is also foolproof: Your vertical reach while jumping is the highest metal flange you are able to bat away from its set position. Subtract standing vertical reach from that number, and you have a player’s vertical leap.
When Duke put its players through the test one day last summer, Zion Williamson’s vertical leap was measured at 46 inches. But to the teammates and Duke staff members who were present, mere numbers do not do the moment justice.
“We were all in shock,” the sophomore guard Alex O’Connell said.
Williamson, who went last, was off the charts. On his first attempt, he casually swatted aside the highest measurement. A staff member adjusted the pole to its highest setting and reset the tabs, and Williamson repeated the feat. They put weights under the contraption to lift it a few more inches into the air. Williamson batted the highest measurements aside again.
“It was something you don’t see a lot, especially with a guy who is built like him flying through the air,” forward Javin DeLaurier said. “It’s a sight to behold.”
Nolan Smith, an assistant coach who played for four years at Duke and several more in the N.B.A. and Europe, said he had never seen anything like it. Cam Reddish, another Blue Devils’ freshman, said he missed out; he said he was in another part of the building when Williamson tested the test itself.
“I just heard that he broke the record,” Reddish said. “Zion things.”
The Time Zion Uncorked a Frighteningly Casual 360
In the beginning, the former Duke standout Jay Williams kept track of the Williamson hype the same way everybody else did: through low-quality video clips shot in high school gyms and then posted on the internet. Williamson’s high-flying plays quickly became “the eighth wonder of the world,” Williams said.
Then he saw him in person.
“I have never seen a player casually do a 360 in a game,” Williams said of seeing Williamson do precisely that in a game against Clemson this season. “Even when you saw Vince do it in college,” he said, referring to Vince Carter, who played at the University of North Carolina, “there was a level of oomph that he needed to exert that type of energy. My man casually did it in the game. He did a 360 like I would do a layup.”
Williams said plays like that one were the reason comparing Williamson to other basketball players is a mistake.
“To me, I was looking at a football player who had the finesse of basketball ability,” he said. “I’ve never seen that before. I played against Julius Peppers in college. I remember him being the only guy Carlos Boozer was somewhat intimidated to go against because he couldn’t just move him around. I remember thinking for the first time: ‘Oh, I was looking at Julius Peppers but through a basketball lens. What? What?’ Julius was agile, but I am talking about the frame of the body. It reminded me of a linebacker or a tight end. Just different.”
The Time Zion Blew Out His Sneaker
By Joe Drape and Marc Tracy
Spike Lee was in his seat and Barack Obama was settled in his, down past the end of the Duke bench. But in front of North Carolina’s Luke Maye — in the space where Zion Williamson had stood a moment earlier — there was suddenly … nothing.
“I didn’t hear anything, man,” Maye said Thursday.
What everyone quickly realized was that the story had quickly changed from a heated rivalry game — top-ranked Duke vs. No. 8 North Carolina — into something far more bizarre: Williamson’s Nike sneaker had broken apart as he made a move at the free-throw line. He was down. North Carolina was racing upcourt. And everyone else was asking: What just happened?
Maye, in that moment, had the best seat in the house.
“I just took the ball,” he said, “and just started going.”
Initially, the Blue Devils were just as confused. The first thing Duke’s Javin DeLaurier saw from his spot on the bench was the sneaker on Williamson’s left foot, or what was left of it, anyway: Its sole was flapping free, like a banner in the wind.
To DeLaurier, this counted as good news.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no, it’s just his shoe,’” he said. “There was a sigh of relief.”
He had, after all, seen this before. He had blown out a shoe before. He had seen Williamson do it, too. “Zion’s a big human being, moving pretty fast, changing direction,” DeLaurier said. “It happens.”
The Time Zion Blocked a Shot From Out of Nowhere
“I consider it my fault,” De’Andre Hunter says now.
He’s not wrong. Late in a February game at Virginia, Cavaliers guard Kyle Guy whipped the ball crosscourt to his teammate De’Andre Hunter, who waited at the 3-point line, deep in the corner, and without a Duke player within 15 feet of him. Williamson was on the left side of the court, playing his usual feisty, active defense, so Hunter, in the right corner, took his time uncoiling the 3-point attempt.
Williamson, though, had closed the gap by then. Soaring across the court with five quick steps, he took off from about six feet away just as Hunter unloaded. “I consider it my fault,” Hunter said. “I took way too long setting it up and releasing the shot. But he came a long way.”
In fact, Williamson jumped so high and stretched so vertically that his right hand was well above the height of the 10-foot rim when he cleanly swatted Hunter’s shot into the stands.
“He just came out of nowhere,” Hunter said.
Worse news, at least for Hunter, was that the clip made its way to ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and other highlight shows, and it is now a staple of the Williamson YouTube filmography.
“I didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal,” Hunter said recently.