Zion Williamson has 1.5 million followers on Instagram and more than 100,000 on Twitter, and tens of thousands more keep up with his every move via a network of dedicated fan accounts. On his most recent Instagram post, which garnered more than 200,000 likes, fans praised him as “the next king of the NBA,” writing things like, “I follow you, my dream is playing like you” and “GOAT.” Williamson, a 17-year-old basketball prodigy, is king of a growing group of breakout high-school basketball players who have simultaneously become social-media superstars.
Before Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, high-school basketball players played for two core audiences: local fans and college scouts.
“If you think about when you went to high school, maybe you cared about your own high-school team and rival, but literally 100 miles away you didn’t care. Local sports was really local,” says Dan Porter, the CEO of Overtime, a sports digital-media platform. “What most high-school players used to be known for was height, weight, how many points they scored, and if they were gonna go to Duke [University].”
Sometimes a highly notable player like LeBron James would break through to the mainstream, but until they reached the top levels of college ball or the NBA, most young players had no ability to reach a national audience or establish themselves as a stand-alone brand.
Around 2014 that began to change. Short-form video began to proliferate on social networks and more digitally native high-school athletes, armed with their own cellphones, started posting clips of themselves and friends doing dunks and trick shots, and cobbling together their own highlight reels for YouTube. These clips spread like wildfire, amplified by the rise of basketball-focused media companies like Ballislife and Overtime, which have dedicated increasing resources to covering the high-school market.
The stars in this new media ecosystem are players like Bol Bol, an 18-year-old with more than 600,000 followers on Instagram, and Shareef O’Neal, with more than 1.1 million. Bol and O’Neal both had fathers (Manute Bol and Shaquille O’Neal, respectively) who played in the NBA, but there are other stars in this system who have no such family history. Jahvon Quinerly has nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram, and Cassius Stanley has almost 300,000. As founders of the “Jelly Fam,” Ja’Quaye James, currently in high school, and Isaiah Washington, now a college player, created a social-media movement around a signature move, the jelly, and helped a number of young players go viral.
“The video community helps these guys while they’re in high school get that audience,” says Matthew Rodriguez, the president and founder of Ballislife.
High-school games across the country are now frequently recorded and broadcast on YouTube, Instagram Live, and other platforms. A big game between top schools can lead to several highlight reels created by parents, fans, and platforms like Overtime. Young athletes also record each other doing impressive moves, cutting video up and posting to Instagram constantly.
“These kids are the first generation of digital-native athletes,” says Porter. “They’re growing up with phones in a way that no one else has. They’re like YouTube stars.” Much like YouTube stars Cameron Dallas or Nash Grier, who are popular more for their social-media prowess than any discernible skill, some of the most popular young athletes on social media aren’t always the ones with raw talent.
While they’re all generally at the top of their game, Porter says that the most beloved players aren’t determined by their ranking. “There’s some algorithm between their athleticism, personality, and impact on social media,” he says. “These are kids that are top players, but they’re not the top, top. Their outrageous dunks, or crossovers, or their personality or brand makes them so popular.”
In other words, if they want to get big on a national level, today’s young athletes need to have the ability to play well, but also churn out amazing content.
Chase Adams, a senior who plays for Marian Catholic High School and has over 100,000 followers on Instagram, had his first viral video come out when he was just in seventh grade. The video was just a simple mixtape of him playing basketball, but quickly racked up more than 14 million views on YouTube. Soon, Adams noticed there were cameras and people recording him at every game.
“At the end of the night, I get a notification on Twitter, ‘Chase Adams new game video.’ The way social media and the video world works, you never know when someone is recording you. They’ll just put out a video as soon as the game is over,” he says.
Now, Adams is followed by NBA players he grew up admiring and local celebrities like the rapper G Herbo. Like the other young athletes he plays with, Adams has become conscious of his own brand.
“You’re held on a higher pedestal with more followers,” he says. “You have to watch what you post, what you say, watch how people record you, and you have to keep your guard up and be careful what you do in everyday life.”
If you can deal with the scrutiny, however, there’s a huge upside.
Roy Clarke, a 17-year-old high-school junior who plays for Fremont High School in Los Angeles, says that social media allows young athletes to generate their own fandom.
“Social media is all me endorsing myself, getting myself out there,” he says. “I don’t have to rely on a team to brand myself. Everything we do goes on social media ... Everything is like, Snapchat this, Snapchat that, give me your video, I wanna dunk, or work on this mixtape with me after this game, or film my dunk. Everything gets connected back to social media somehow,” Clarke says. “I’m just trying to make myself seen. I want to show people what I can do. I’m thinking about who is going to see this, who is going to see that I’m most likely college-ready. I get people to edit videos for me, to make the video look good.”
But the pressure to be perfect can be overwhelming. Rodriguez, who founded Ballislife back in 2005, has seen several generations of high-school basketball players evolve, and says that the current generation is held to almost impossible standards.
“People forget that they’re just kids,” he says. “They’re not afforded the excuse of being a kid anymore. Folks can’t understand that they are 15, 16, 17 years old. When I was younger, coming up, I didn’t have social media, so I was able to make mistakes and say stupid things. Folks outside my state didn’t see it.”
In their quest for perfection, social media is also where young athletes turn to improve. Instagram is a valuable resource for learning new moves and keeping track of what moves other players are doing, much to the chagrin of many coaches.
“Social media can be horrible for coaches because you see kids doing these difficult tricks they saw online and doing it wrong and you’re trying to break bad habits,” says Anthony Hargraves, a program director at Riverside Church Hawks, a basketball program in New York. “You have kids that are emulating these NBA players who are doing these tricks. They’re putting their balls in between their legs,” he says.
Hargraves says that while athletes in general improve over time and kids today as a whole play better than their predecessors, he is surprised at how quickly a viral move can spread across the country. He noted that now young players on the East Coast don’t have to stay up to record a 9 p.m. West Coast NBA Houston Rockets game; they can just watch, then loop, clips of the NBA player James Harden’s signature “step back” move on Instagram.
“People watch videos and you rep them out so much, they become habit. You go out into the game and can use that Steph Curry move that I learned on Instagram,” says Jalen Pickett, an 18-year-old who played for the Aquinas Institute in Rochester. “I feel like Instagram and Twitter have helped me become a better player because of just the fact that other ballplayers put out videos of drills and stuff.”
Still, he says he’s careful to get his coach’s approval before trying anything crazy in a game.
Not every player takes that precaution. The temptation to knock out crazy tricks that will go viral on social media instead of playing the game straight the best you can is something many young athletes feel acutely. Ultimately, they’re unlikely to be recruited if coaches suspect they’re not a team player, and if you fail to nail a trick move, your failure can go equally viral.
Scott Vermillion, a high-school basketball coach for 20 years, currently at Gate City High School in Virginia, says that as a coach it’s very important to teach his kids not to just play for the Instagram views.
“I’ve not been impressed with some of the things I’ve seen with some of these kids with big social-media numbers,” he says. “They play no defense, they shoot bad shots. When individual goals outweigh team goals it’s a disgrace to the game ... But it can be a steroid. If you get a viral dunk, that certainly has an impact on how you play ... Going viral, it’s an element of the game that 10 years ago you didn’t have to deal with.”
Still, Vermillion is aware of the upsides. His star player Mac McClung blew up last year after becoming the unofficial dunk king of YouTube. McClung now has over 600,000 followers on Instagram and videos of his dunks on Twitter have amassed millions of views. Porter’s media network, Overtime, began paying McClung’s classmates to film videos of him on the court shortly after he started to gain traction online.
The biggest thing McClung’s viral dunks did for him, however, was give him a huge leg up in the college-recruiting process. McClung is headed to Georgetown University next year, a top-tier basketball school.
Coaches spend hours scouring social media for kids like McClung, and platforms like Twitter and Instagram have allowed them to cast their net far more broadly. Coaches used to have to visit smaller markets or watch local tournaments to find a diamond in the rough. Now they pay attention to who is gaining traction online.
“Social media is the new road to recruiting,” says Hargraves. “You can identify kids online then go see them on your own time ... If you’re a coach in North Carolina, you can hear about a kid in Ohio because they’re on Instagram, Twitter, and online video. It allows colleges to cover a great deal of ground without traveling.”
Knowing that a potential recruit comes with not just skills on the court, but a huge online fandom, can also play a roll in a college’s decision. “They can capitalize off that player playing with their organization from a marketing standpoint and bringing revenue in,” says Lance Gurley, a high-school basketball coach in South Carolina.
2019 Forward CJ Walker @Cjwalker_14 is pushing for the title of best defender in the country. Plays like this display his quick twitch jumping, lateral movement and recovery ability that are at an elite level pic.twitter.com/PNF2loLOC6— Endless Motor Sports (@endless_motor) May 15, 2018
That said, a huge portion of the recruiting process is still analog. Hargraves and others say that coaches will never stop attending tournaments IRL, and they’ll want to see how even the most hyped-up player on Instagram plays offline, no matter what.
The college-recruitment process, especially for top players, also isn’t a one-way street. Young players use social media to evaluate their future college options, potential teammates, and competition. Coaches and young athletes say that Twitter, in particular, has allowed them to have a direct line and dialogue with each other that was more difficult to have previously.
When high-school players do make the decision to commit to a school, the announcement, customarily made on Twitter via the Notes app, is yet another opportunity to go viral.
Blessed Beyond Measure 🙏 ............ I’m a 〽️ountaineer!!! pic.twitter.com/Ji4eDPTsIw— JC Tharrington (@JCSwish5) May 3, 2018
All of these changes have been a boon for digitally savvy kids in smaller markets who might have previously gone undiscovered. But as more young athletes are tasked with marketing themselves and managing their own brands, those who are less adept or don’t have access to technology will struggle.
“Kids who don’t know how to use social media are definitely at a disadvantage,” says Gurley. “If you don’t know how to market yourself, that just makes kids that do know how more appealing.” He says that equipment can also make a difference. Young athletes with more money can buy the fancy high-res cameras and hire top-notch video editors to cut together edits for social media and mixtapes. But ultimately, for even the most viral young players, it all boils down to the love of the game, something all players say you can’t fake.
“I think that basketball stuff does so well on social media because everybody likes basketball,” says Adams. “If someone dunks, that’s attractive to everyone. Even if you don’t like sports you can be like ‘Damn! That’s a hell of a move,’ or ‘That’s a hell of a dunk.’ Then they can follow.”