What does it take to be a signature sneaker star in the NBA?
Michael Jordan had the charisma and the gift of flight. Penny Hardaway was a quiet superstar with a great alter ego in Lil' Penny. LeBron James continues to push boundaries with the latest tech and innovation in his sneakers. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who made a massive jump last season, is next in line to become a great signature star and just happens to possess one of the best nicknames in the league.
Duke’s Zion Williamson is the most famous basketball player currently not playing in the NBA, and will likely be a coveted sneaker prospect in next year’s NBA draft. Last year, Williamson's electrifying dunks and highlight mixtapes earned millions of views and made him a viral sensation. He has everything you'd want in a future pitchman in the social media age.
Williamson will have a lot to prove in what is perhaps his lone collegiate season in Durham. While the forward from South Carolina impressed scouts during Duke’s three-game preseason tour in Canada, the microscope will focus on him more than ever and how he handles the pressure may ultimately decide his future. The Crossover explains why Williamson will be a hot commodity during the sneaker recruiting season.
Social Media Star
Williamson has 1.7 million followers on Instagram and 147K followers on Twitter, boasting social media stats you would expect from an NBA All-Star. Victor Oladipo, for example, has 1.1 million followers on Instagram. The first two picks of the NBA draft, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, have a combined 866K followers on Instagram. One Instagram post from Williamson can create massive exposure for a brand, which is important in an age when talent alone is not enough to sell sneakers. Brands are searching for prospects who have star power online to reach young consumers.
Williamson’s highlights from one Duke game in Canada garnered over 1.5 million views.
Even stars like Drake and Odell Beckham have jumped on the bandwagon and helped elevate Zion’s brand. Both donned his high school jersey on Instagram.
Kids make up a big chunk of the basketball sneaker market and are obsessed with everything Zion does, and brands would be crazy not to factor his social media pull into the recruiting process.
We have to take this one with a grain of salt. Brands usually push hard for prospects at the grassroots level in hopes that they will play for their travel team or at a high school program endorsed by the said brand. Bagley III, who was tied to Nike throughout high school, eventually landed at Puma. Ditto for Trae Young, who played in the Nike circuit throughout his prep career and ultimately spurned the Swoosh for Adidas.
As a five-star recruit out of Spartanburg Day High School, Zion played in Adidas, wearing models such as the Dame 4 and Harden Vol. 2. He also played AAU in the Adidas circuit with SC Supreme. But things will get interesting this year as he will now lace up in Nike's this season for Duke.
The One-Name Effect
LeBron, Kobe, Kyrie, Odell, Serena, Shaq, Ronaldo, Neymar, Messi… most marketable stars have unique, one-name recognition. Zion has the same effect in the media already. Appearing with Jay Bilas on ESPN’s 94 Feet segment, Zion was asked how to pronounce his name and made it clear that he understands how the right moniker can create a lasting impact with fans at home.
“It’s (pronounced) Zi-en, but when the announcers saying my name I want them to say Zion," Williamson told ESPN. "because it sounds better, like ZION Williamson! It just sounds better.”
Charisma + Personality
Personality is the make or break for stardom. Kawhi Leonard could have been one of the most marketable players in the NBA if he had a touch of charisma. While Kawhi is arguably a top five player when he is healthy, it doesn’t help that he is extremely private. It’s a major reason why Jordan Brand will reportedly let him walk once his contract is up. He has the accolades and the talent, but can he sell shoes?
Donovan Mitchell took the league by storm last year and has become a fan favorite because he knows how to connect with people. He has become one of the biggest Adidas endorsers and a signature sneaker might be on the horizon. Mitchell owns a great nickname, he is happy to play in Utah and, of course, he has superstar potential.
Zion has that same relatability and remains humble despite his celebrity.
Obviously, what made Zion a box-office hit is his ability to dunk. Williamson is sure to be must-watch TV once the college basketball season starts. It will be easy to market a sneaker around a player that can complete plays like this:
The sky is the limit for Zion.