With the way ESPN has been talking about him recently, many casual sports fans would be led to believe Zion Williamson is already a NBA superstar. The hype around the Duke super-freshman has overshadowed the buzz around his projected-star teammate R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, another top three recruit with incredibly high NBA potential.
Williamson exploded onto the national scene in high school, after mixtape footage of his unbelievable strength and power on his dunks and freakish jumping ability to block shots, went viral on YouTube.
ESPN has gone so far as to have a ticker pop-up on the screen while airing non-Duke college basketball games. It advertises the Duke freshman ahead of their upcoming game. To the incredulity and ire of North Carolina fans, it has even shown up during UNC games. Duke taking airtime from UNC during their own game is a cardinal sin in the eyes of Tar Heel fans.
Scottie Pippen has even gone as far to say, on an episode of ESPN’s “The Jump,” that Zion Williamson is the “best NBA prospect since Michael Jordan,” widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time and Pippen’s longtime teammate.
Recently the news and buzz around Williamson reached its all-time high. All eyes were on the first Duke-UNC game of the season on Feb. 20. However, the excitement was dampened in the first couple minutes of the game as Williamson went down with a knee injury.
His foot blew entirely through the sole of his Nike sneakers, and he was ruled out for the game with a sprain, luckily avoiding a serious season-ending injury. The injury dominated media coverage in the days after the game, with debate centering around the one-and-done rule in the NBA. Currently, players entering the NBA draft must attend one year of college beforehand.
His injury is changing minds, as many are advocating for the rule to be abolished entirely. The argument is that prospects as great as Zion Williamson are wasting time and money attending college before the draft.
It's all but guaranteed that he will be the number one pick in the upcoming draft. The only thing that would reasonably change that is a ACL tear or other serious injury, which he just escaped the past week. With potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, playing in college is not worth the risk.
It is easy to believe Zion may be the most hyped athlete in recent memory. However, many other athletes have been surrounded with significant hype as well.
I will now go through who I believe to be the ten greatest and most hyped athletes in modern sports history. But I am not ruling out Zion from the list. The list includes athletes in the last 25 years through the social media age. Obvious choices who easily would have made the list, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, are excluded by the time constraint.
Notable near exclusions: The Williams Sisters, Kobe Bryant, Cristiano Ronaldo, Adrian Peterson, Bojan, Andrew Luck, Stephen Strausburg, Peyton Manning, Wayne Rooney, Kylian Mbappe, Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, Greg Oden, Jabrari Parker, Orlando Pace.
One marker of a player’s fame is their ability to get away with being called by one name, such as Pele or LeBron. Neymar has had that special status since he was 17 years old. Neymar became a global phenomenon after scoring an incredible 42 goals in 60 games for Santos and debuting for the Brazil national team. He won the Copa Libertadores with Santos and was named South American player of the year, and the expectations exploded even more.
Where is Neymar now?
Despite widespread criticism that he could not handle the physicality of Europe, Neymar has had incredibly success since moving to Barcelona. He won multiple La Liga trophies as well as the UEFA Champions League. He moved to PSG and shattered the world record transfer fee to become the world’s most expensive player. Currently, Neymar is widely regarded as the third best player on the planet after Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and he is the favorite to take over as the best once they decline.
9. Connor McDavid
As a teenager, Connor McDavid competed with Sidney Crosby for the title of the best prospects in history. McDavid was the consensus future number one pick in the NHL Draft since 18 years old. The hype skyrocketed when Wayne Gretzky called him “the best player to come into the league in the last 30 years.”
Where is McDavid now?
McDavid has already established himself as a NHL superstar in his young career with the Oilers. All signs of his career trajectory point to McDavid potentially becoming a NHL legend. At 22 years old, he is already a two-time all-star and a Hart trophy winner.
8. Andrew Wiggins
Hailed as the “next Lebron,” Wiggins was the most hyped high school player since LeBron, drawing comparisons to Tracy McGrady as well. Mixtapes of him leaping out of the gym to dunk on defenders, in addition to his smooth spin move and hop-step to get to the rim, racked up millions of views. In no small feat, he beat out another top prospect, Jabrari Parker, to be viewed as the crown jewel of his draft class.
Where is Wiggins now?
The former number one pick in the NBA draft out of Kansas, Wiggins has not yet lived up to his massive expectations so far with the Timberwolves. Despite signing a massive extension, he has been inconsistent offensively and as a shooter. His motivation has been questioned, but he clearly shows flashes of stardom. However, Andrew Wiggins is running out of prime years to make the leap.
One of the greatest teenage soccer players of all time alongside Messi, Ronaldo was a phenom and even called “El Fenómeno” as a nickname. He was called up to the Brazil national team at just 17 years of age, winning a World Cup in 1998. He set a world record transfer fee before his 20th birthday when the freakishly-athletic striker moved to Barcelona from PSV Eindhoven.
Where is Ronaldo now?
Long since-retired, Ronaldo was one of the greatest players of all time and a Brazil legend for his two World Cups. After dominating Spain with Barcelona at 20 years old, he moved to Inter Milan and then Real Madrid where he enjoyed his peak years. A horrific knee injury prevented his rise to even greater heights. It is often said the debate for best player ever would be between a different Ronaldo and Messi, had he not been injured.
6. Sidney Crosby
Probably the best hockey prospect of all-time, the 2005 NHL draft lottery selection became known as the “Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.” People who did not follow hockey whatsoever knew the name “Crosby” before he even played in a single NHL game. Sidney Crosby played well above his age group in youth leagues and was called the “best player ever seen” by his coaches.
Where is he now?
Crosby has certainly matched the hype and is known as one of the greatest players of his generation. The Canadian has won three Stanley Cups and two Gold Medals, and is a two-time Hart Award winner for the most valuable player in the NHL in his ongoing career with the Penguins.
5. Bryce Harper
Harper graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16, a sure-fire guarantee of prodigy status for any young athlete. He has been labeled “Baseball’s Chosen One” in comparison to LeBron games. Harper was hitting 500+ foot bomb home runs since his sophomore year, eventually deciding to leave high school for junior college, and then the MLB draft.
Where is Harper now?
Harper has had a great start to his career. The MLB superstar has been to six all-star games, was the NL Rookie of the Year, and won the league MVP in 2015. The 26-year-old has been all over the news recently for signing a record 13 year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
4. Freddy Adu
Freddy Adu was touted to be the savior of soccer in the United States from his early teenage years. He signed for DC United in the MLS at the young age of 14 and became the youngest player to ever score in the MLS. The “next Pele” received interest from Manchester United and mainstream media attention worldwide in the mid-2000s, even winning the ESPY for “Best Breakthrough Athlete” in 2004.
Where is Adu now?
Unfortunately, Adu has become the poster child for being overhyped and the failed “wonderboy.” He failed to establish himself at DC United and kickstart an international career. He currently is without a club after bouncing around Europe and the United States.
3. Lionel Messi
Messi was so good that at just 12 years old, a Barcelona scout who saw him play in Rosario, Argentina demanded he sign a contract on a napkin so Barcelona could beat out other South American and European clubs. The scout swore he would be best player ever, the next “Maradona.” He was the crown jewel of Barcelona’s La Masia academy and destroyed the youth goal-scoring records. The Brazilian legend, Ronaldinho, was known as the best soccer player in the world in 2005 after winning the Ballon d’Or. However, referring to the then 17-year-old Messi, he famously said, “This award says I’m the best player in the world, but I’m not even the best player at Barcelona."
Where is he now?
Messi has reached the hype set out for him and even surpassed it. He is currently the best player in the world and has won a joint-record (with Cristiano Ronaldo) five Ballon d’Or. He was the fulcrum of the greatest team ever assembled—Barcelona of the mid-2000s—and is widely considered not only the best ever, but a short-list contender for greatest athlete of all time. An international trophy with Argentina is all his is missing from his trophy case.
2. Tiger Woods
The most famous golfer ever by a long-shot, Woods was a prodigy since the age of two when he appeared on The Mike Douglas Show. The hype continued through college at Stanford where he was two-time first team All-American and was the Jack Nicklaus national player of the year in 1996.
Where is Woods now?
14 Major Championship wins later, Tiger Woods is regarded as the greatest golfer of all time in competition with Jack Nicklaus. He became a global superstar and so popular that he even had his own video game series. His early 2000s run saw him as the most dominant golfer ever and he is credited for putting golf back on “the map.” Every tournament or major he played in was must-watch TV. After spending a number of years battling injury and inconsistent play, Woods has made his way back to the top of the golf scene over the last year.
1. LeBron James
The most obvious inclusion on this list, LeBron has been a household name since he was 16 years old. His high school games were aired on ESPN, which was unheard of at the time. Danny Ainge once famously said: "If I were a general manager, there are only four or five NBA players that I would not trade to get him right now." His passing ability incited Magic Johnson comparisons, while his scoring reminded scouts of Jordan. He was seen as a super hybrid of the two. The NBA was looking for a star to replace Jordan as he retired and LeBron was the prime candidate. The 2003 draft became known as “The LeBron James Draft.”
Where is LeBron now?
LeBron has unbelievably lived up to, and even exceeded, the hype. The touted “next MJ” has been chasing Jordan’s legacy his entire career after dominating the league out of the gates since 2003. The three time NBA champion and four time MVP with the Cavs, Heat, and now Lakers looks to continue to close the gap with Father Time gaining ground. He now sits comfortably as one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball.