Standing a little over 6-foot-3, Asa Waters isn’t exactly tiny. Nor is he without athletic gifts. “I was a pretty good high school player, at least by my region’s standards,” the now-20-year-old Anderson University student tells me. “I made All-Region my senior year and won a couple AAU tournaments. I played predominantly as a forward, and my game mostly revolved around defense and outside scoring. The problem was, my school just so happened to play basketball in the same region as Spartanburg Day School — the home of Zion Williamson.”
On Williamson’s way to Duke — where he starred for a year before becoming the first overall selection in last year’s NBA Draft — he ruined countless hoop dreams with his incredible combination of size, strength and style of play. In fact, being embarrassed on the court by Williamson during his prep days has become its own genre of online content that resurfaces on social media about every other week.
So what was it like to just be some regular teenage kid, having to match up against a generational talent like Williamson only because your high school was close enough to his? This at least was Waters’ experience…
I went to a tiny private school in a small town in South Carolina. I had a graduating class of 40 people, and there were about 100 people total in my high school. In terms of our basketball team, we were the laughing stock of the region. In the four years I played there, we won a whopping two games within our region, and while I played against Zion seven times over the course of high school, only one of those games could be described as “technically competitive.”
I played for three coaches in four years, and they each had their own theory as to how to approach the Zion Game. The only strategy I really remember was during my junior season when we tried to run a triangle-and-two defense against him where two defenders shadowed him at all times, denying him the ball. They still beat us by about 80 points that game.
My favorite pre-Zion Game speech came during my senior year when our assistant coach basically said, “There’s a bunch of cameras and fans here, let’s just have fun with it.” Honestly, it worked. I actually had a good time and enjoyed the moment. I finished with almost 20 points and had a few of my buckets sneak into highlight videos.
The Zion Games didn’t feel real most of the time, more like some kind of fever dream. Just to see a dude that massive, yet somehow more athletic than everyone else on the court by a factor of about 10, is astonishing. I still remember watching him go up for an alley-oop and seeing him float in the air like he was made of helium or something.
I’ve dealt with pretty intense anxiety for most of my life and playing in those games certainly had a way of triggering it. I’d stand next to Zion for the opening tip, and my legs would feel like Jell-O. I swear, my whole body was shaking. Realizing you have to guard someone of that stature can really screw with your head. I think the fact that I had to play against him so many times definitely helped ease my nerves over time, but I was still always a nervous wreck before and during those games.
On the court, Zion had this intensity about him that I’d never encountered before. He never said anything, but he’d give the most intimidating stare downs ever. My buddy fouled him hard enough on a dunk attempt once that Zion fell to the ground. When he got up, he had the wrath of God in his eyes.
I dreaded the day after a Zion Game. Just knowing that everyone at school saw me get absolutely embarrassed the night before, and because this is high school and high schoolers are pricks, I knew I’d get a lot of crap for it. The worst was probably the highlight videos. YouTube comment sections are ruthless, man.
All that said, Zion is genuinely one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever played against, just super positive and humble. He was a huge deal in high school, especially in South Carolina. We had an unofficial team policy that you weren’t allowed to take a picture with him after the games, just to maintain what little integrity we had. But that still didn’t stop a lot of the younger guys — and even some coaches — from doing it. To Zion’s credit, he was always willing to talk to anyone as well as always encouraging to the younger guys. Everyone should really be rooting for him to succeed. He’s a great guy, and he’s overcome a lot to get to where he’s at.
I think the biggest thing I gained from playing against him was the ability to not take myself too seriously and just enjoy whatever I’m doing. At first, I took those games super seriously, and it made for a miserable experience. Eventually, I realized that it didn’t matter that much. We were completely overmatched and had no shot of winning, so I just tried to enjoy the moment instead. To that point, the most fun I ever had playing basketball was my senior year. We didn’t win much, but we had a great time. I attribute a lot of that to the lessons I learned in those Zion Games.
A lot of times in life, your situation is only as bad or as good as you make it. So I made the most out of playing basketball for a crappy team. I try to apply that same mentality to everything else I do. Especially at a time like now, I can’t overstate how important that perspective has been for me.
As for basketball, I never had any intention of playing in college, so I wouldn’t say that I was much of a prospect coming out of high school. But I have become a rather prolific intramural player.