College Sports

The super team that never was: On Zion’s first AAU team and a missed opportunity

Zion Williamson, a freshman from Duke, attends the NBA Draft media availability, Wednesday, June 19, 2019 in New York. The basketball draft will be held Thursday, June 20. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Zion Williamson, a freshman from Duke, attends the NBA Draft media availability, Wednesday, June 19, 2019 in New York. The basketball draft will be held Thursday, June 20. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) AP

What do Roy Williams, Coach K and real estate agent Ricky Taylor have in common?

On most days of the year, not much. But on Thursday, Taylor could join the other two as coaches to have three former players taken in the first round.

Taylor, the coach of the South Carolina Hornets AAU team, coached Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, the projected top two picks in Thursday’s draft. He also coached Georgia forward Nic Claxton, who could go later in the first round after a strong performance at the NBA combine and in private workouts.

While Taylor will watch the draft from home and feel proud of his former players, he will have one regret: Williamson, Morant and Claxton never joined together to make the best Big Three that South Carolina had ever seen.

In the summer of 2015, Taylor had Williamson, then a 6-foot-4 forward about to enter high school, join Morant and fellow sophomore Devontae Shuler on the Hornets, forming what would be one of the best trios in the state. Shuler, who now plays for Mississippi, entered the summer as the team’s best player in the eyes of college coaches. The guard, now 6-foot-2, was already pushing 6-feet and became a role model for Williamson through his play.

“He would impress me with so much,” Williamson said of Shuler during the NCAA Tournament. “He’d get steals by, like, acting like he got faked out by a spin move and just turn right back. Very explosive scorer. He’d score 15 points straight. I used to just watch in awe of him.”

Morant was only 5-foot-7 as a freshman playing under Taylor, but he grew three inches by the time Williamson came around. Taylor said Morant couldn’t dunk as a freshman but came back as a sophomore catching ally-hoops and finishing over defenders with ease.

It was then Taylor knew Morant could go far with basketball.

“He didn’t grow that much,” Taylor said. “He just got more athletic.”

Then there’s Williamson. Roughly four inches shorter than his current height and not as muscular, Morant originally thought Williamson was going to play for the younger Hornets team. Morant quickly changed his opinion when he saw Williamson perfectly execute a windmill dunk despite just finishing eighth grade.

Williamson had no problem holding court Wednesday when a village of reporters camped out around his podium, something Morant said he couldn’t do when the duo first teamed up.

“He was a very shy dude,” Morant said, “but would go and score 30.”

Taylor remembers Williamson’s breakout moment while playing for the Hornets, and he’s recounted it many times.

At a tournament at Clemson, the Hornets were playing an older team featuring Seventh Woods, one of the state’s top players. A player went up for a dunk, and Williamson blocked it off the backboard with both hands. Despite getting all ball on the block, an official blew his whistle.

“There wasn’t a foul,” the official told Taylor. “I just got caught up in it and blew my whistle.”

While AAU teams are stacked every season, what makes Taylor’s accomplishment so impressive is that the Hornets aren’t a major grassroots program. The team doesn’t play on a shoe-sponsored travel circuit, and Taylor doesn’t recruit players nationally for his program.

Rivals.com recruiting analyst Eric Bossi said AAU teams such as the Atlanta Celtics pull off feats such as having five first-round picks in a single draft all the time. But not many can relate to doing it with Taylor’s circumstances and having all three players firmly in the mix to go in the first round.

“It’s incredibly unique,” Bossi said. “It wasn’t a shoe-funded team with the help of the shoe company people helping steer guys to that team. That’s what really unique about it. I’d have a hard time thinking of many independent teams that had this kind of success. What’s crazy about it is, it’s not like when those guys were all there was this crazy buzz about this team. It’s pretty crazy to think a team of all local guys without a shoe budget is looking at three NBA Draft picks, but three early-entry guys.”

Ultimately, Williamson left for an AAU team powered by a shoe company, electing to play for South Carolina Supreme, his dad’s team on the Adidas circuit. Shuler also left, joining Team CP3 on the Nike EYBL circuit.

Claxton, another local prospect, joined the team shortly after Williamson’s departure, becoming Morant’s new partner-in-crime.

After seeing Claxton become one of the breakout names of the draft season, Taylor has wondered what could have been had all three players teamed up together.

“We would have been one of the best AAU teams ever,” Taylor said.

Williamson was hesitant to go as far as Taylor, but admitted the team would have been pretty good. He said while at Duke, he never expected to be the go-to option given the scoring ability of teammates R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish.

“I think being in different situations forced us to adapt to different things,” he said.

Morant, who stayed with Taylor throughout high school, wasn’t having it. After playing with both players on the same team, he doesn’t think success or chemistry would have ever been an issue.

“I can tell you there wasn’t a lot of losing when I played with Zion and there wasn’t a lot of losing when I played with Nic,” Morant said. “If you put both of them and me together ...”

NBA Draft

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.

Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY

TV: ESPN

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