Not since Rex Chapman in the 1980s has the state of Kentucky seen a groundswell of excitement like that generated by Adair County High School point guard Zion Harmon this season. Yet even before the freshman phenom was leading the state of Kentucky in scoring (33 ppg), free-throw percentage (90.7), and assists (7.9 apg), he was a national name.
Two years ago, Harmon became the first seventh grader to compete on the Nike EYBL circuit. A season ago, as an eighth grader at Bowling Green High School (KY), he was named to the state championship all-tournament team after helping his squad secure the Kentucky state title (Kentucky is one of only two states remaining, along with Delaware, which still plays single-class basketball). Last summer, Harmon competed for the Gold medal-winning US national team in the 2017 FIBA U16 Americas Championship in Argentina. If all of this wasn’t enough, last fall he became just the second freshman in the John Calipari era to be invited to Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness season kickoff.
“It’s a great feeling and helps me know I am on the right path and to stay focused,” Zion says of the invite.
His current list of offers includes Missouri, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and SMU, but the list is sure to grow for the 5-10 guard who compares his game to that of former Kentucky Wildcat Tyler Ulis. Future 150 ranks Harmon as the top overall player in the 2021 class, and he has taken unofficial visits to other top programs like Kansas and Indiana.
One must go back to Chapman’s storied career at Owensboro Apollo High School to recall the last time the Bluegrass has boasted a player as sought-after and highly ranked as Harmon. Much like Chapman did, Harmon draws a crowd of admirers to every gym in which he plays.
“A lot more people are coming out to our games to see him, people from both Adair County and also surrounding areas,” says Adair County head coach Deron Breeze. “Pretty much anywhere we go on the road there is a big crowd, as well. I’ve never seen anything like it, autograph-wise. Usually when you see kids wanting autographs in this state it’s at the big holiday tournaments where teams are coming in from other states, but now every night when we are on the road there are little kids waiting outside the locker room for him to sign something. When OJ Mayo was playing middle school ball over in eastern Kentucky, he kind of had the same buzz, but he ended up leaving the state.”
Zion’s father, Mike Harmon, echoed Breeze’s observation.
“We have played in the most rural places in this rural state and I am always astonished by how many kids there are wherever we go,” he says. “We go to some of the most rural places, yet there are always so many kids wanting his autograph. In Marshall County there were kids following him all over the place. It astounded me just how much all of that has grown from last year to now.”
Despite the fact that Harmon transferred from Bowling Green to Adair County over the summer, he has no plans to leave Kentucky for the remainder of his prep career.
“After Zion won a state title in the State of Kentucky as an eighth grader with Bowling Green, and seeing the frenzy and the madness with Rupp Arena (where the Kentucky state tournament is held) and the love of the game in the state, I was won over by the one-champion format,” says the elder Harmon. “Plus, he’s already playing USA basketball and in the 17u EYBL, so by staying in a regular high school he gets the opportunity to still be a kid and interact with other kids in a regular high school environment. In the summers he gets to play for USA basketball and on the EYBL circuit. As a father, I don’t feel like he’s missing out on anything.”
Zion agreed that the state’s single-champion format is an appealing element of staying put.
“I like how there is only one team that ends up on the top,” he says. “In other states you never really know who the best team in the state is because there are so many different state champions.”
His coach was happy to adjust his coaching philosophy to make room for his star’s style of play.
“He gets double and triple-teamed, but the best offense for us this year has been to give him the ball, ball-screen for him, and then have everyone else play off of him,” Breeze says.
Zion’s father describes his son’s style as a “city game,” which has helped him stand firm against defenses geared towards slowing him down.
“Before coming down here he grew up in Washington DC playing against the Gauchos, and all those New York and Philly kids, so I think he has brought a city game to Kentucky,” says Mike Harmon. “There is great culture here in Kentucky, so the combination of the city toughness and the high IQ and great coaching you get from playing here in Kentucky has been a perfect mix.”
Adair County lost in the regional semifinals this season, extinguishing the dream of back-to-back state titles for Zion, but he will have three more seasons to collect hardware and climb toward the state’s career scoring record of 4,337 points set by “King” Kelly Coleman in the 1950s. However, his coach asked rhetorically, why stop at the state level?
“If he continues at the rate he is going, he will finish as the second all-time leading scorer nationally for his high school career once you add in his seventh and eighth grade season totals,” Breeze says. “If anyone can do it, he can, because nothing is handed to him. He is the highest-rated player but it’s because he spends more time in the gym than anybody else.”