DURHAM, N.C. -- In Section 7 of Cameron Indoor Stadium last month, a collection of NBA scouts monitored a Duke practice that doubled as a private fundraiser for a local children's hospital.
The folks who travel the world to mine the market for prospective talent wind through the same gyms ad nauseam. They've seen the best. They've also been fooled. That's why the conclave of fatigued globetrotters aren't much of a demonstrative bunch in those settings.
While the donors and patients of the local children's hospital cheered throughout the three-hour practice, the NBA scouts mostly sat quietly as they observed the action on the floor. That was until five-star prospect Zion Williamson, a basketball phenom who boasts 1.8 million followers on Instagram, caught a rebound, hovered seemingly for a few seconds with his forehead near the top of the backboard and threw the ball through the rim.
It wasn't a dunk. It was the same maneuver a child uses when he slams a wad of bubble gum that's lost its flavor into a trash bin.
But this was a 10-foot rim. And the muscular 6-foot-6, 272-pound Williamson did this in traffic against elite NBA prospects, which prompted some of the typically composed pro scouts to gasp and shake their heads.
"It's like," one NBA scout said then, "it's not even fair."
Williamson is the biggest star in college basketball and he hasn't played one official game yet. That will come Tuesday when No. 4 Duke faces No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
He's not the first athletic marvel to grace a basketball court in the one-and-done era. But he's the first college basketball player who boasts the ingredients to transcend the sport in his first and, by all accounts, lone season at this level.
"You're talking about somewhere around a 270-pound, 6-6/6-7 player," Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN last month. "He's not overweight. He's this unique athlete. By far the best jumper. Lateral movement is quicker and he floats. It's tough to explain. We're still learning how to position him."
In high school, the native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, drew energetic crowds with dunks that rivaled the best highlights in the NBA each night. A picture of Drake sporting Williamson's high school jersey from Spartanburg Day School was liked 576,000 times.
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His teammates call him "Zanos" like the supervillain "Thanos" from Marvel's "Avengers" movies. Along with R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones, he's a member of the nation's top recruiting class, a group that could feature the top three picks in next summer's NBA draft.
He's also the star of "Earn Everything," the Duke documentary series on ESPN+. He was on the cover of Slam magazine in high school and his mixtapes, which feature his windmill and between-the-legs flushes, have been viewed millions of times on YouTube. LeBron James Jr.'s grassroots squad took a trip to Duke over the summer and hung out with Williamson and his teammates.
Right now, he has more Instagram followers than Magic Johnson (1.5 million). He has more videos on YouTube with 1,000,000 views or more than NBA All-Star Anthony Davis.
He's also in the middle of a growing controversy.
His alleged tie to the FBI corruption investigation that's disrupted the sport will only magnify the noise around him.
In the first trial in New York City, a defense attorney for Merl Code, one of three men convicted of felony wire fraud last month in the federal court case, unveiled transcripts of phone calls that allegedly detailed Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend and his client discussing what it might take for Kansas to sign Williamson.
Per Krzyzewski, Williamson was exhaustively "vetted" prior to signing with Duke. But that cloud will only encourage those who have a permanent gripe against the school that has produced Christian Laettner, JJ Reddick, Grayson Allen and other polarizing stars.
Williamson could become the icon the game might have enjoyed had Kobe Bryant or LeBron James played college basketball and pass the "mom" test, according to Jesse Ghiorzi, the director of brand strategy at Indianapolis-based Charge, a consulting firm that has helped NASCAR and other sports organizations build their respective brands.
Ghiorzi said he measures an athlete's brand by its potential to become someone his mother, who is not a sports fan, might recognize. He said Williamson has that potential and a buzz unlike any amateur athlete he can recall.
"There is nobody I can think of that has had that kind of pop before they've played a professional game," he said. "Nobody that I can think of has ever been like him."
If that sounds crazy, then you haven't heard the stories about Zion Williamson.
In 2017, Las Vegas police officers scrambled throughout the Cashman Center during the Adidas Uprising Summer Championships as fans tried to enter the packed venue prior to a matchup between Williamson's SC Supreme and LaMelo Ball's Big Ballers Squad.
As the building filled up, hundreds of fans were pressed against the glass doors, hoping they'd find a seat before an officer closed the doors. In a wild scene, family members were separated as organizers closed every entrance to the facility. Coaches with credentials were stuck in the VIP lounge as officers blocked them, too.
"It was like you were at a Jay-Z or Taylor Swift concert," Georgia Tech's Josh Pastner said about the atmosphere that day.
Damian Lillard, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Lonzo Ball and other NBA standouts were in the building. Per organizers, LeBron James was in Las Vegas and wanted to attend the event, too, but he was told to stay away because of the chaos his presence would create in a venue that was already threatening to violate local fire codes.
"It was a great experience, but my personal opinion, I don't think it was a real good basketball game," Williamson said about the matchup that was viewed live by nearly one million people. "It was just kinda up and down, just trying to put on a show. But it was a still a great experience."
The Ball family owned the media spotlight in the summer of 2017, but that night, Williamson matched their hype. When Williamson's team sealed the win, hundreds of young spectators swarmed him, not LaMelo Ball.
Those who'd followed Williamson's career were not surprised. He has always stood out.
"I call him The Truth," said Jeff Horton, chairman of the Spartanburg County Council. "He was extremely cordial and took time to sign all autographs for his many fans, and Zion packed all gyms when he played."
His mother, Sharonda Simpson, ran track at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. That's where she met Williamson's father, Lateef Williamson, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end who'd played for NC State briefly before academics cost him his scholarship. He eventually transferred to Livingstone College.
Following his commitment to NC State in the early 1990s, Lateef was described by one publication as "a massive defensive lineman who is said to be one of the most imposing physical specimens to come to NC State in recent years."
"He was a heck of an athlete for his size," said Mike O'Cain, the former NC State coach who recruited Lateef. "He could've been a good defensive lineman. He obviously had tremendous athletic abilities."
The younger Williamson was coached by his mother and stepfather, former Clemson guard Lee Anderson, growing up, but his sculpted frame comes from his father.
In a former generation, Zion Williamson might have been a star on a football field, especially after his four-inch growth spurt in high school.
He's built more like Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, a 6-5, 288-pound All-Pro defensive end, than LeBron James, who didn't look like Williamson at the same age. Not even close.
"I didn't get this size until my junior year of high school," Williamson said. "And my school doesn't have a football team."
His physical makeup is unrivaled among his peers.
Prior to a matchup against Duke during the Blue Devils' summer exhibition tour in Canada, Roy Rana, head coach at Ryerson University in Toronto, advised his players to draw offensive fouls on Williamson whenever he drove to the lane.
Then, the players saw Williamson in person for the first time.
"Sacrificing your body for your team is certainly a great attribute to strive for with all defensive players," Rana said. "But when you're about to step in and take a charge on Zion Williamson, it could be detrimental to your health."
And fire codes.
As his dunks became more daring and daunting, the views on his YouTube clips increased, along with exposure and popularity. There were times that local officials in South Carolina had to take precautions to accommodate the blossoming frenzy.
"I know when his school played Dorman High School [from Roebuck, South Carolina] last year in an exhibition game, we had additional officers for the increased crowd, but there weren't any incidents," said Lt. Kevin Bobo, the public information officer for the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office.
Wofford head coach Mike Young saw Williamson before the blueblood college programs arrived, mostly because his school is in Spartanburg. He said Williamson was smaller as a freshman, but even then Young said he knew Williamson had gifts.
"He was 6-3, 6-4, a little fluffy, and he didn't have nearly the explosiveness he has now," said Young, who offered Williamson one of his first Division I scholarships.
Then Williamson did something in a game that set him apart from anyone Young had seen.
"It was a defensive play, a reaction to a baseline penetration, and from out of nowhere, here comes this young man," Young said. "He didn't block [the shot]. He caught it, OK? He caught it."
That's a play Larry Cullinane, head coach at Trinity-Byrnes Collegiate School, witnessed often in his team's four matchups against Williamson's Spartanburg Day High School squad in the state playoffs. He'd followed Williamson's career and first saw him play as a middle-school guard competing in local open gyms.
The five-star version of Williamson led his squad to four consecutive wins over Cullinane's team, including a 74-41 win in the SCISA 2A state championship last year. Before the game, Cullinane told his team to take advantage of the crowd's reaction to Williamson's dunks.
Whenever the gym would explode after a Williamson flush, Cullinane would urge his team to push the ball up the floor and shoot a 3-pointer. According to Cullinane, his team hit three shots from beyond the arc after a Williamson dunk during the state title game.
"I'd already prepared the kids," Cullinane said. "I don't care if he dunks on us. Let's get a 3-pointer on the other end before he gets up half court."
Williamson could have won the NBA's dunk contest in high school. That's what made him famous. And that's enough to help him secure a top-10 slot in the NBA draft.
At Duke, Williamson hopes to prove, however, he's more than a sideshow.
"I'm a basketball player," he said.
You have to walk next to him to understand why he floats.
You might think he's wearing football pads underneath his shirt when you're near him. Williamson's calves bulge from his legs like bread rising in a hot oven. His heels never touch the floor when he's walking due to a constant bounce created by his powerful stride. He's got a powerlifter's biceps.
And when it all comes together, as it did during Duke's practice last month, it's a marvelous act.
"Freak of nature," said R.J. Barrett, the projected No. 1 pick on ESPN's 2019 mock draft board. "Never seen anything like it. Love playing with him. Throw the ball anywhere, he gets it. Whenever he has the ball, something good happens. There was one time, this was just recently, like last week, I threw up a floater and I missed and he dunked over the big man that was on our team, Marques [Bolden]. He dunks over him. He just takes two steps and just flies. And he dunks it so hard."
Williamson is more than a big man.
At Duke's practice last month, he played point guard in stretches during the second scrimmage and led his team to a win with a half-court buzzer-beater. He made 75 percent of his 3-pointers in his team's first exhibition of its offseason trip to Canada. Krzyzewski said Williamson's ballhandling was more advanced that he'd realized prior to signing him.
"I started recruiting him after [his freshman year] because he had good size, he could pass and he had good court vision to be so young," said one Division I coach who recruited Williamson. "His athleticism didn't take off until he was going into his junior year. That's why I think he's a better basketball player than people even realize. The highlights overshadowed all the other things he could do."
That versatility could help him compete for the top slot in next summer's NBA draft and thrust him into the national player of the year conversation, if the skills he displays in spurts become his norm this season.
"He has to demonstrate some semblance of consistency as a jump shooter," one NBA scout said. "He has to show his ability to handle the ball. Ball screens, seam attacks in half court, decision-making in transition. He's right there. He's right there, though."
He'll be working on that this season while the world watches. Everywhere he turns, there will be a TV camera or a smartphone or a fan or an NBA scout or a coach tracking his decisions. They all will be watching and wondering what Williamson will do next.
"Like Coach K says, I'm not a big, I'm a basketball player," Williamson said. "I just have to show all parts of my game. Now that I'm in college, I'm gonna have to showcase it."
Cullinane, the opposing coach who faced Williamson's high school team four times, knows what's coming. He warns that those who tune in should not be surprised.
"It was always," he said of Williamson, "a show."