It almost seems like a certainty now.
Whichever team wins the NBA Draft Lottery on Tuesday night (Note: it was the New Orleans Pelicans), regardless of whether that first pick is traded or not, Zion Williamson will most likely be the first player taken in the NBA Draft on June 20.
Already a star thanks to Williamson’s leaping ability and the power of social media, the explosive forward starred at Duke this past season and became the consensus national player of the year as a freshman.
But before all that, he was a high school basketball player being recruited out of Spartanburg, S.C. And his first offer came from Wofford College while Dustin Kerns, the new Appalachian State men’s basketball coach, was an assistant under then-Terriers coach Mike Young.
So what was the pitch for a player destined for the national spotlight?
“You never know what someone’s looking for, and you never know when someone is kind of in their own element and comfortable,” Kerns said last month at an App State Yosef Club event. “At that point, yeah it’s one of those kind of wishful thinkings.
“We did a big presentation about LeBron (James) coming back to Cleveland. We did that with Zion staying home.”
Kerns said Young went to watch Williamson at Spartanburg Day School during his freshman season in 2014-15. That was where the recruitment of Williamson started. And in his junior year, Kerns said Williamson came on an unofficial visit for a Wofford game. The Terriers would become the first program of many to offer the phenom a scholarship. But eventually, the hype machine revved up.
“At some point ,obviously, it went to another level,” Kerns said. “But what a great story.”
Kerns said the Wofford staff had one line of thinking: why can’t Williamson play at Wofford? At that point in time of Williamson’s life, NBA stars were emerging from unlikely schools on a regular basis. Damian Lillard (who played at Weber State), C.J. McCollum (Lehigh), Paul George (Fresno State) and Klay Thompson (Washington State) were thriving in the pros. Steph Curry (Davidson) had already won his two MVP awards.
In the landscape, Kerns said, Williamson could’ve thrived at Wofford and still set himself up for stardom.
“There was a genuine type of recruitment because it didn’t matter where he went,” Kerns said. “He could’ve went to Weber State, he was going to be the No.1 pick. He knew that. He said it doesn’t matter where I go. I’ve got to go with what’s the best fit.”
Williamson found his way into a Blue Devils uniform, playing with soon-to-be fellow lottery picks R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish as Duke would claim the ACC Tournament and win 32 games in the 2018-19 season.
Now set to be a building block for an NBA franchise, Kerns thinks Williamson is going to excel. He said Williamson displayed that throughout his lone college season with his energy and excitement for the game.
“I think he’s going to be very successful because he’s got such a humble nature to him,” Kerns said. “Obviously he’s an elite player and an elite talent, but there’s been elite players and elite talents not make it because of their mindset.
“He’s got an incredible way about him to handle that.”