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What Does It Take to Become a YouTube Highlight Star? These Recruits Have Mastered Going Viral

The hype around Zion Williamson was thanks in part to his viral social media highlights, but he's far from the only recruit to build up a following on YouTube.

Watching highlight reels of a top prospect long before they don their school colors has become a commonplace for college hoops fans in the social media era, but high school sensations like Zion Williamson have taken that fast fame to unprecedented levels. The superstar sound of his name–Zion–might have helped, but regardless: you know who he is. Williamson became one of the most-hyped recruits in history because he was wildly talented, but also because he was everywhere.

Videos of his dunks went viral years before he might’ve traditionally become a household name during Duke’s excellent season or in March Madness. From YouTube to Instagram, Williamson’s status reached another level because of his social media stardom.

Williamson was a top-five recruit in the class of 2018 before he became one of the central weapons of a top-five Duke team. He arrived in Durham inarguably more well-known than the actual No. 1 prospect in the class of 2018, his teammate R.J. Barrett–at least, if you put any stock in Williamson’s unmatched 69.4 million views on YouTube entering Thursday. The same could be said for Oregon center Bol Bol, son of former NBA player Manute Bol, who skyrocketed in status as he staked his claim to a top-10 spot in most recruiting rankings thanks to 23.2 million views of his own.

But recruiting rankings don’t always line up with the highlight reel views leaderboard. Shareef O’Neal amassed 17.1 million views on YouTube, the third-most in his class, as the No. 41 ranked prospect. Villanova’s Jahvon Quinerly, No. 29, garnered 8.9 million, while four-star guard Jordan McCabe, who signed with West Virginia, rounded out the top-five in the class of 2018 with 5.8 million YouTube views.

So what does the class of 2019 look like in terms of views and viral videos? As was true in 2018, the YouTube views leaderboard doesn’t exactly line up with the recruiting class’s top-ranked names. Memphis commit James Wiseman might be the No. 1 prospect in the class per 247Sports, but in terms of YouTube views that honor goes to Cassius Stanley, a 6’5” shooting guard from Sierra Canyon, Calif., and the No. 28 prospect in the class of 2019. Videos of Stanley have been watched more than 11.5 million times through Dec. 8, 2018.

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While that total pales in comparison to the YouTube stars of last year’s class, it’s more than two million views more than Stanley’s runner up: Cole Anthony, a top-three 2019 combo guard from southwestern Virginia who has amassed 9.3 million views—three times as many as Uninterrupted’s video of LeBron James giving YouTubers a sneak peek inside his sneaker closet. Next in line is Jalen Lecque, the No. 29 recruit and an NC State commit. Videos of Lecque have garnered more than eight million views—just shy of fourth-place finisher Nico Mannion and No. 5 Tyrese Maxey’s combined 8.7 million but almost double the combined views of the bottom five players in 2019’s YouTube top 10.

The numbers are staggering; millions of people watching high school players they might not have ever heard of had it not been for highlight reels and masterfully made mixtapes. But how do the No. 28 and No. 29 ranked recruits trounce the top-ranked prospects on YouTube? It’s all about connections—and keywords.

A full 2.1 million views connected to Stanley are from a video of the wing playing in a game against current UCLA freshman Shareef O’Neal, son of NBA legend Shaq. O’Neal generated enough views of his own to land him in the No. 3 slot in the class of 2018 rankings, but it’s safe to assume that the name ‘O’Neal’ certainly carries some weight in a search for basketball highlights. A video of his team’s state playoff game that Kendall Jenner came to watch has more than one million views as well. The savvy ‘KARDASHIANS watch Cassius Stanley SHOW OUT in STATE PLAYOFFS’ title reeled in Kardashian fans and basketball fanatics alike.

Add in another two-and-a-half million from Stanley’s collaboration with Jesser, a YouTube creator with a subscriber base of two million, where viewers watched Jesser go head-to-head with Stanley, and you can see why he tops this leaderboard.

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Cole Anthony capitalized on a similar equation for internet stardom—he was also featured alongside Shareef O’Neal, but this time in a video of ‘NBA Players’ Kids in ACTION!’ Anthony’s father, Greg Anthony, played 12 seasons in the NBA. Bol Bol and LeBron James Jr. were also featured in the video, which has 1.6 million views as of publication. While their famous fathers certainly contributed to those clicks, Anthony has also made a name for himself as a “Jam Fam” floor general. The jelly and jam family movements reflect contrasting styles of play among point guards—a battle of finesse versus force, so to speak.

The collectives have taken the basketball community by storm, spreading like wildfire on social media. Jelly Fam’s Jahvon Quinerly, a hot name of his own, faced Anthony in what Overtime, a basketball powerhouse when it comes to producing coveted high school hoops highlights content, dubbed ‘JELLY FAM VS JAM FAM Point Guard Battle!’ Quinerly scored 37 against Anthony in the video, which got a boost from being a product of the Overtime brand. The basketball site boasts more than 544,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Anthony, the No. 3 ranked recruit, raked in enough views to finish second to Stanley. But the disparity between YouTube’s No. 3 and his actual recruiting ranking is much greater–Jalen Lecque falls at No. 29 in 247Sports’s rankings. The combo-guard and New York native found his fame from shoutouts by Overtime as well as other popular basketball content creators like SLAM (165,000 subscribers) and Ballislife (1.7 million subscribers).

Lecque’s most-watched video brought in more than half a million views. It was a SLAM ‘Day in the Life’ documentary that was helped by his nickname, ‘Baby Westbrook.’ Known for his high school triple doubles, the comparison certainly makes for a catchy title and a good hook for hoops fans who know the real Westbrook as a triple double waiting to happen.

Point guard Nico Mannion, the 14th ranked recruit, takes the No. 4 slot in our YouTube class after boosts from three Ballislife videos, the most popular of which was from his time at NBA superstar Steph Curry’s camp. Steph’s search potential certainty helps, but Mannion’s showing is equally as impressive to any die-hard high school hoops followers.

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The Arizona native and in-state commit’s 6.9 million views make him the last in the multimillion-watch club. Combo guard Tyrese Maxey and wing Scottie Lewis each fall within the 1-million range, while floor general Tre Mann and the top-ranked recruit on our list, future Blue Devil center Vernon Carey, fall at No. 8 and 9 respectively in YouTube views with 865,000 and 832,000 watches. The 43rd most promising prospect in 2019, Drew Timme, a 6’10” center from Texas, takes our tenth spot with 652,000.

The latter five video stars can attribute their success to similar patterns—from something like Tre Mann’s continual connection to Dwyane Wade’s son Zaire to Ballislife breakdowns, Overtime reels or SLAM specials, the collegiate recruiting community is clearly close-knit. There are few trustworthy mix-tape makers, but their stamp of approval or, better yet, their showcase of a certain player, is wildly valuable when it comes to unpaid publicity. The class of 2019’s top 10 had the right accounts and the right players in their YouTube arsenal.

In neither class, however, did the No. 1 recruit break the ranks in video views—a sure sign for those sufficiently panicked after reading this piece that talent still trumps fame at the end of the day. That said, it’s clear that the combination of the two, plus the factors of flashiness and hyped-up headlines, can make just about any player the next top-ranked YouTube recruit, even if you don’t make the real-life top-25.