Williamson was born in Salisbury, North Carolina. Besides basketball, Williamson played soccer and the quarterback position in football. When he was five years old, he set sights on becoming a college basketball star. At age nine, Williamson began waking up every morning at 5 a.m. to go train. He competed in youth leagues with his mother Sharonda Sampson coaching and played for the Sumter Falcons on the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit, facing opponents four years older than him. Williamson later began working with his stepfather, former college basketball player Lee Anderson, to improve his skills as a point guard. He joined the basketball team at Johnakin Middle School in Marion, South Carolina, where he was again coached by his mother and averaged 20 points per game. In middle school, Williamson was a point guard and lost only three games in two years. In 2013, he guided Johnakin to an 8–1 record and a conference title.
High school career
Freshman and sophomore seasons
Williamson attended Spartanburg Day School, a small K–12 private school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he played basketball for the Griffins. Between eighth and ninth grade, he grew from 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m) to 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m). In the summer leading up to his first season, Williamson practiced in the school gym and developed the ability to dunk. At the time, he competed for the South Carolina Hornets AAU team as well, where he was teammates with Ja Morant. As a freshman, Williamson averaged 24.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 3.3 steals and 3.0 blocks, earning All-State and All-Region honors. He also led Spartanburg Day to a South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA) state championship game appearance. In March 2015, Williamson took part in the SCISA North-South All-Star Game in Sumter, South Carolina. By his second year in high school, he stood 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m). In his sophomore season, Williamson averaged 28.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, and 2.7 steals per game and was named SCISA Region I-2A Player of the Year. He led the Griffins to their first SCISA Region I-2A title in program history. In June 2016, Williamson participated in the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) Top 100 camp and was its leading scorer. In August, he won the Under Armour Elite 24 showcase dunk contest in New York City.
As a junior, Williamson averaged 36.8 points, 13 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game. Entering the season, he was among 50 players selected to the Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award watch list. Starting in the 2016–17 season, Williamson was propelled into the national spotlight for his viral highlight videos. He made his season debut on November 15, 2016, recording 42 points and 16 rebounds in a win over Cardinal Newman High School. In the same month, his highlights drew the praise of NBA player Stephen Curry. On November 24, Williamson erupted for 50 points, including 10 dunks, along with 16 rebounds and 5 blocks versus Proviso East High School at the Tournament of Champions. In a 73–53 victory over Gray Collegiate Academy at the Chick-fil-A Classic on December 21, he posted a tournament-record 53 points and 16 rebounds, shooting 25-of-28 from the field. On December 30, Williamson recorded 31 points and 14 rebounds to win most valuable player (MVP) at the Farm Bureau Insurance Classic. On January 15, 2017, he received nationwide publicity after rapper Drake wore his jersey in an Instagram post.
Williamson surpassed the 2,000-point barrier on January 20, when he tallied 48 points against Oakbrook Preparatory School. On February 14, he led Spartanburg Day past Oakbrook Prep for their first SCISA Region I-2A title, chipping in a game-high 37 points in a 105–49 rout. Williamson broke the state record for most 30-point games in a season, with 27 by the end of the regular season. He repeated as SCISA Region I-2A Player of the Year. High school sports website MaxPreps named him National Junior of the Year and to the High School All-American first team, while USA Today High School Sports gave him All-USA first team recognition. On April 22, 2017, Williamson recorded 26 points and 7 rebounds for his AAU team SC Supreme in a loss to highly touted recruit Romeo Langford and Twenty Two Vision at an Adidas Gauntlet tournament. In June, he appeared on the cover of basketball magazine Slam. Williamson, in a highly publicized AAU game on July 27, scored 28 points and led SC Supreme to a 104–92 win over 2019 class recruit LaMelo Ball and Big Ballers at the Adidas Uprising Summer Championships. In August, he was named MVP of the 2017 Adidas Nations camp after averaging 22.5 points and 7.2 rebounds through 6 games.
In his senior season, Williamson averaged 36.4 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He debuted on November 15, 2017, erupting for 46 points and 15 rebounds in a 70–62 loss to Christ School. In his home opener on November 21, he recorded 29 points and 11 rebounds, leading the Griffins to a 70–55 win over Hammond School. In the game, Williamson bruised his left foot, which sidelined him for over a month. While recovering, he commented, "It's really been a time to grow mentally." Williamson made his return from the injury on January 11, 2018, scoring 31 points in a 71–62 victory over Asheville Christian Academy. On January 13, in a nationally televised game at the Hoophall Classic, he scored 36 points as his team lost to Chino Hills High School. Williamson tallied 30 points and 13 rebounds in his final home game on February 8, a 58–54 win over Greensboro Day School. On February 17, he posted 37 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 steals, while scoring his 3,000th career point, versus Spartanburg Christian Academy at the SCISA Region I-2A tournament. One week later, Williamson guided Spartanburg Day to its third consecutive SCISA Region I-2A championship after recording 38 points against Trinity Collegiate School.
Wofford offered Williamson his first college basketball scholarship when he was a freshman in high school. In the summer of 2015, Williamson emerged with the South Carolina Hornets AAU team as one of the top players in his class. By the end of his sophomore season, he received offers from 16 NCAA Division I programs, including Clemson, Florida, and South Carolina, but was not planning on making a decision until his senior year. In the summer of 2016, Williamson was drawing the most attention from Clemson, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. On August 30, 2016, he received a scholarship offer from Duke. Williamson was also offered a football scholarship by Eric Mateos, tight ends coach for LSU, but did not show interest. Entering his junior season, he was a consensus five-star recruit and was ranked the number one player in the 2018 class by recruiting service 247Sports. In December 2016, ESPN recruiting director Paul Biancardi touted Williamson as "probably the best player in terms of production" in his class. By 2018, most recruiting experts predicted that he would play for Clemson.
In a live ESPN telecast on January 20, 2018, Williamson committed to Duke. He explained the decision, "Duke stood out because the brotherhood represents a family. (Mike Krzyzewski) is just the most legendary coach that ever coached college basketball. I feel like going to Duke University, I can learn a lot from him." Duke, who had landed RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish in addition to Williamson, became the first team to land the top three recruits in a class since modern recruiting rankings began. His stepfather Lee Anderson remarked that Clemson lost a "mile-and-a-half lead" in recruiting Williamson.
Williamson played in a preseason game for Duke on August 15, 2018, in an 86–67 win over Canadian university Ryerson, recording a double-double of 29 points and 13 rebounds and shooting 3-of-4 from three-point range. He was named to the preseason watch lists for the Karl Malone Award, Naismith Trophy, and John R. Wooden Award. On November 6, in his first regular season game with Duke, Williamson scored 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting in 23 minutes in a 118–84 win over Kentucky at the Champions Classic. In the game, he and teammate RJ Barrett each broke the Duke freshman debut scoring record set by Marvin Bagley III. In his following game, a 94–72 victory over Army, Williamson tallied 27 points, 16 rebounds, and 6 blocks. He became the second player in school history to record at least 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 blocks in a game. Williamson was subsequently named both player and freshman of the week in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
On January 5, 2019, he had another strong performance versus Clemson, with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and a 360-degree dunk in 22 minutes. Two days later, Williamson earned ACC Freshman of the Week honors for a second time. On January 8, he posted 30 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals in an 87–65 win over Wake Forest. On January 12, against Florida State, he was poked in the left eye by an opposing player towards the second half and missed the remainder of the game. Williamson returned in Duke's next game, a 95–91 overtime loss to Syracuse, and erupted for 35 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks. He eclipsed the Duke freshman record for single-game points previously held by Marvin Bagley III and JJ Redick. On January 21, Williamson collected his third ACC Freshman of the Week accolades. One week later, he scored 26 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in an 81–63 victory over Notre Dame. By recording nine 25-point games in the season, Williamson set a new Duke freshman record. On February 2, he led all scorers with 29 points and 5 steals in a 91–61 win over St. John's. After two days, Williamson was named ACC Freshman of the Week on his fourth occasion, while earning National Player of the Week distinction from the Naismith Trophy. He had his third 30-point game of the season on February 16, scoring 32 points in a 94–78 victory over NC State. The performance helped him claim his second ACC Player of the Week and fifth ACC Freshman of the Week accolades.
Williamson out with knee injury in February 2019
Williamson sits on the bench during a game versus Virginia Tech with an injury suffered from a broken shoe. He walks on the court during a media timeout.
In a February 20 game versus North Carolina, Williamson suffered a Grade 1 knee sprain 36 seconds into the contest after his foot ripped through his Nike shoe, causing him to slip. He did not return to the game, which Duke lost, 88–72. Nike saw the value of its stock drop by $1.1 billion the following day as a result of the incident. The day after the injury, Duke announced that Williamson was "day-to-day." The incident led to growing calls for Williamson to stop playing basketball at the college level because he had already established himself as the top 2019 NBA draft prospect. In addition, the injury resulted in more criticism of the NCAA for not paying student-athletes. He was held out from his team's final six games in the regular season. When the regular season concluded, Williamson earned Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in the ACC, joining former Duke players Jahlil Okafor and Marvin Bagley III as the only recipients of both awards. Williamson was also named ACC Athlete of the Year, becoming the 10th Duke player to win the Award. He additionally made the ACC All-Defensive and All-Freshman teams.Sporting News named Williamson as its Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. He returned from injury on March 14, posting 29 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 steals in an 84–72 win over Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. He shot 13-of-13 from the field, marking the best shooting performance in school and tournament history, while tying the best in ACC history. Williamson also became the first Duke player to record at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 steals in a game since Christian Laettner in 1992. The next day, he scored 31 points including the game-winner to help Duke defeat North Carolina, 74–73, in the ACC Tournament semifinals. After posting 21 points in a 73–63 victory over Florida State in the championship game, Williamson was named ACC Tournament MVP, becoming the sixth freshman to win the honor.
For the 2019 NCAA tournament, official broadcast partner CBS specifically devoted a camera—called the "Zion Cam"—to record Williamson throughout the tournament. In his NCAA Tournament debut on March 22, he scored 25 points in an 85–62 win over 16th-seeded North Dakota State. On March 24, Williamson erupted for 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists in a 77–76 second round victory over UCF. He was the first player in school history to record at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists in an NCAA Tournament game. Williamson led all scorers on March 31, with 24 points and 14 rebounds in a season-ending 68–67 loss to Michigan State in the Elite 8. Through 33 appearances in his freshman season, he averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game. He shot 68% from the field, which led the ACC, ranked second in the NCAA Division I, and was the highest ever field goal percentage by a freshman. In addition, Williamson joined Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis as the only freshmen to collect 500 points, 50 steals, and 50 blocks in a season.
On April 15, 2019, Williamson declared his eligibility for the 2019 NBA draft. After the New Orleans Pelicans won the 2019 NBA draft lottery, Williamson's stepfather Lee Anderson said they were excited about him potentially playing in New Orleans and dismissed rumors that he would return to Duke for a second year, saying, "As far as returning to Duke, that's not something we've even considered."
New Orleans Pelicans (2019–present)
2019–20 season: All-Rookie honors
On June 20, 2019, the New Orleans Pelicans drafted Williamson with the first pick in the 2019 NBA draft. On July 1, 2019, Williamson officially signed with the Pelicans. Williamson tore his meniscus on October 13, 2019, during the preseason of his rookie campaign. Williamson made his professional debut three months later on January 22, 2020 in a 121–117 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. He played 18 minutes and finished with 22 points and 7 rebounds, scoring 17 consecutive points in 3:08 minutes during the fourth quarter.
In his first eight games, Williamson scored at least 20 points in four consecutive games, the longest streak by any rookie of the season; he also tied the longest streak in the Pelicans franchise history, scoring at least 20 points in six of his eight games, and tying the record for the seventh-most among all rookies (fellow rookie Ja Morant had the most with 19) after a 125–119 win over the Chicago Bulls on February 7. On February 24, he led the Pelicans to a 115–101 win over the Golden State Warriors. With 28 points on 13/20 shooting in a season-high 33 minutes of play, Williamson was just one game behind Carmelo Anthony for most consecutive 20-point games as a teenager at 8. He would later become the first teenager in NBA history to score at least 20 points in 10 consecutive games. On March 1, Williamson scored then career-high 35 points, along with 7 rebounds, in a 122–114 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Williamson finished his rookie season averaging 22.5 points on 58.3 percent shooting from the floor, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. He ranked first among all rookies in points per game, second in rebounds per game and first in offensive rebounds per game. He became the first rookie since Michael Jordan to post 16 20-point games within their first 20 contests while also logging the highest scoring average through his first 24 career NBA games since Jordan in 1983. On September 15, Williamson was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
2020–21 season: First All-Star selection
On February 12, 2021, Williamson scored a new career high 36 points in a 143–130 defeat against the Dallas Mavericks; he finished the game on 14/15 shooting, making him the youngest player in NBA history with 30 points on 90 percent shooting. On February 23, 2021, Williamson was selected into his first NBA All-Star Game. On March 21, 2021, Williamson scored 30 points and 6 rebounds in a 113–108 win over the Denver Nuggets.
During the season, Williamson tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record for the longest streak of at least 20-point games on 50-percent shooting within his first two seasons since the shot clock era in 1954–55. The streak eventually grew to 25 consecutive games, surpassing Hall-of-Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone while tying Shaquille O'Neal's record of 25 consecutive such games, with no other player having had a longer streak since the three-point era in 1980; his streak of 20-points games on 50-percent shooting and attempt to surpass O'Neal's record ended in a 139–111 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on April 7.
2021–22 season: Surgery and year absence
During the off-season, Williamson suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot and underwent a subsequent surgery. In late-September, team officials were hopeful that he would be ready to return by the start of the season. By mid-October, the timeline for his expected return was extended until December. In mid-December, it was announced that the injury was slow to heal and he would most likely be out another four to six weeks with a possible return to action around the all-star break. In mid-March, it was announced that Williamson would not play that season.
On July 6, 2022 Williamson signed a 5-year rookie extension with the New Orleans Pelicans worth $193 million guaranteed, increasing to $231 million if he makes an All-NBA team in the 2022–2023 season.
Williamson goes in for a slam dunk against Hartford, December 2018
While in high school, Williamson drew national attention for his slam dunks.The Charlotte Observer remarked that he "could be the best high-school dunker in history." NBA point guard John Wall has likened Williamson's in-game dunking ability to that of Vince Carter. Williamson's outside shooting has been considered a point of concern, and he has unorthodox shot mechanics. Recruiting service 247Sports has praised his ball handling and passing skills for his size, commenting that they are "overshadowed by [his] athletic plays." Williamson has the ability to defend multiple positions well due to his speed and length, although his defensive effort has been questioned. His explosive play makes him a reliable shot-blocker and gives him prowess as a rebounder.
On July 23, 2019, Williamson signed a five-year, $75 million shoe deal with Jordan brand. Williamson's deal is the second-largest rookie shoe deal in history, trailing only LeBron James's $90 million rookie deal signed in 2003.