Josh Kendall

Xavier and Zion: SC stars will be in national recruiting spotlight

LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school player.

Austin Rivers more than once made young girls cry just by saying hello.

“Zion, I think, is gonna pass both of them, which is crazy,” said USA Today high school basketball writer Jason Jordan, who followed James’ ascension as a fan and Rivers’ recruitment as a journalist. “I never thought I would say that, but I think he’s going to pass both of them because of the circus that’s around him and his abilities.”

Zion Williamson is the 6-foot-7, 220-pound junior basketball star at Spartanburg Day School who brought his barnstorming tour through Columbia in December for the Chick-fil-A Classic and now has exploded on the national scene.

“I saw two men run behind him saying, ‘Zion, Zion give us a picture,’ ” Jordan said. “I mean, these are men who I know have full-time jobs and take care of families. I saw the police have to take people away because it was causing too much of a stir. I think it’s only going to grow because now you have Drake.”

Drake, the international music star, recently posted a photo on his Instagram account of himself wearing Williamson’s No. 12 Spartanburg Day jersey, sending Williamson’s fame to another level.

“It’s cool to know Zion Williamson now. It’s crazy,” Jordan said. “I don’t know how it would get bigger than Drake wearing your jersey. Maybe Obama wears it next.”

Whatever comes next is going to shine a very bright light on the state of South Carolina. Signing Day for college football is Feb. 1, which means Feb. 2 will kick off the countdown to the next recruiting cycle, and it’s going to be a doozy because both Williamson and Florence defensive end Xavier Thomas, the No. 2 football recruit in the nation, will be making their choices.

The combination of both players means the next year could end up being the craziest recruiting year in the history of the Palmetto State, which is saying something in a state that has produced the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Kevin Garnett.

Thomas won’t play in South Carolina next year, choosing to leave Wilson High and play his final season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., but the fact he narrowed his list of college choices to South Carolina and Clemson means the recruiting attention will remain focused on his home state.

“I think he’s going to be one of the most closely followed recruits in this 2018 cycle,” said Barton Simmons, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “He would be the No. 1 player in this class if there wasn’t a quarterback who had thrown for 10,000 yards and 120 touchdowns in Trevor Lawrence. That’s very rare to have a quarterback with that kind of résumé. Otherwise, we would be looking at the No. 1 player in the America (with Thomas).”

Wilson coach Thomas Balkcom, who coached Thomas in 2016, expects Thomas’ recruiting to be an “all-out war” between the Gamecocks and Tigers.

“It’ll be frenzied to say the least,” Balkcom said.

Thomas is a 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive end who’s rated a five-star prospect in 247Sports’ composite rankings. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has made Thomas a recruiting priority throughout this season, even though he won’t be able to sign for another year.

The push leading up to next February will be more intense.

College basketball players have two signing periods, so Williamson could make his decision in November, or next April.

“I don’t think the hype will be as big for a committed recruit,” Jordan said. “If he stays uncommitted for most of his senior year, oh my goodness.”

South Carolina has seen its share of elite basketball recruits, but it’s never seen what’s coming with Williamson, said Carey Rich, a Gamecocks guard in the early ’90s and a fixture in the Columbia basketball community since.

“He is on a different level,” Rich said. “I think we saw that at the Chick-fil-A tournament with the amount of attention and excitement that he was able to generate. He is on a different level when it comes to being recruiting.”

Considering Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal were both recruited in the state, that’s saying something.

“Zion will be a bigger deal for two reasons,” Rich said. “One reason is social media and how big recruiting has become. The other reason is Zion Williamson doesn’t have the option those players had. They knew they were going straight to the NBA. Once a lot of schools got wind of that, the fanfare and pageantry died down. There was no reason to waste time on a top-level prospect knowing he was going to the NBA.”

NBA rules now force players to be one year removed from high school before they can be added to a team, meaning all of college basketball’s “blue bloods” will be coming through South Carolina in the next 12 months, Rich said.

Some already have.

“Kansas head coach Bill Self was in town last (week) watching him play,” Rich said.

Williamson will get no break from recruiting when school is out. In fact, whatever summer circuit he chooses to play on will be like a traveling circus as long as Williamson is under the big top, Jordan said.

“People are going to flock to the game he’s at,” Jordan said. “Do I think he knows what’s ahead? No. I don’t think he understands how intense it will get.”

Maybe nobody does.

Football Class of 2018

The top five recruits in the nation, according to 247Sports Composite ratings:

1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Cartersville, Ga.

2. XAVIER THOMAS, DE, FLORENCE

3. Jalen Hill, WR, Los Angeles

4. Zamir White, RB, Laurinburg, N.C.

5. Micah Parsons, DE, Harrisburg, Pa.

Basketball Class of 2018

The top five recruits in the nation, according to 247Sports Composite ratings:

1. Marvin Bagley, PF, Tempe, Ariz.

2. ZION WILLIAMSON, SF, SPARTANBURG

3. Romeo Langford, SG, New Albany, Ind.

4. Cameron Reddish, SF, Norristown, Pa.

5. Silvio DeSousa, PF, Montverde, Fla.

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