Court 3 of the Riverview Park Activities Center was packed more than two deep around the railing of the overhead track, and the courtside bleachers and chairs were cut off to all but VIP guests.
The initial attraction was recently crowned NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant, sitting in his gray hoodie across the court with the A-list college coaches watching the next generation of star basketball players at the Peach Jam.
What everyone, including Durant, ended up watching when Boo Williams took on City Rocks New York was actually the next next generation – a barely 15-year-old middle schooler running the point like a seasoned veteran.
Zion Harmon from Bowling Green, Ky., actually is a seasoned veteran already. He has yet to begin ninth grade, but he’s already started as point guard since seventh grade on the varsity at two different high schools. Last season he led Bowling Green High to a 36-2 record and the state championship, capping a 29-game winning streak by leading all scorers with 18 points in front of 11,346 fans at Rupp Arena the weekend after his 15th birthday in March.
This is his second season playing at the highest level of Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, having become the first seventh grader to play in the U17 division last year.
“Never intimidated,” Harmon said. “I don’t fear nothing but my Lord.”
That was obvious Thursday afternoon as he performed in front of KD and a standing-room only crowd of coaches and fans. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound Harmon ran the offense for legendary AAU coach Boo Williams with complete authority – waving teammates into the proper position and setting everything in motion.
“Last year was kind of a break-in and I was out there kind of just playing,” Harmon said. “This year it’s more like we have to win. I guess (my teammates) have a little respect for me, even though I’m younger. It doesn’t faze them much.”
Boo Williams’ assistant Tony Rutland, a former 3-point shooting demon at Wake Forest, knows a little something about elite youth guard play. In the early 90s, Rutland was part of arguably the greatest high school guard tandem in high school when he shared the backcourt at Bethel High in Newport News, Va., with recently enshrined Basketball Hall of Famer Allen Iverson.
“Maturity wise, he’s on another level,” Rutland said, lauding Harmon’s “basketball IQ” for his age. “(Allen and I) were out there just playing on strictly talent and not really knowing the game. That’s why I say when Z’s playing you forget that he’s in the eighth grade because his maturity on the basketball court is beyond where we were at.”
That maturity comes from Harmon’s dedicated work ethic.
“All the hard work since I was 5 years old out in the hot sun no matter what temperature it was – 100 degrees or zero degrees, we always found a court to work hard every day,” he said. “Basically it’s just fun. I do it just to give the glory to God and show that anything’s possible in this game.”
Harmon’s favorite current player is Chris Paul, but it’s Iverson he models his game after. He showed no fear cutting into the lane against older players a foot taller. With his shooting touch off Thursday (he went 2-of-9 from the floor but made 6 of 7 free throws) his primary concern was running the offense so scorers Keldon Johnson (33 points) and Aundre Hyatt (21) could do their thing as Boo Williams rallied and won 79-76 in overtime.
Harmon still scored 11 points.
“I didn’t play as well as I should have, but we got the win,” Harmon said.
“In the past he’s been used to scoring, so this year he’s adjusting to the fact he does have guys like Keldon and Aundre as shooters so the game is going to be easier for him. He can pick and choose when he scores. If we works on just running a team and winning, everybody wants a winner and he’s out here winning with double digits in maybe a bad shooting game.”
Harmon’s definitely a winner. As the youngest player to ever play for USA Basketball’s U16 national team, in June he led the Americans to a 5-0 record and the gold medal in the FIBA U16 Americas Championship in Argentina to qualify for the 2018 U17 World Cup.
It’s all child’s play for a kid whose favorite app is the Bible.
“Age doesn’t really mean nothing to me,” he said last month. “I’m a Christan and in the Bible they have people that rule kingdoms when they’re 13 years old.”
One day Harmon might be ruling an NBA court with Durant – if the 28-year-old MVP lasts long enough for Harmon to grow eligible.
“He’s blessed with talent,” Rutland said. “You never know how tall he’s going to get or if he’ll sprout up. But where he’s at right now, the sky’s the limit.”