COLUMBIA, S.C. — The luckiest man in basketball is a 50-year-old real estate agent. It’s Saturday, a big day for business, so Ricky Taylor can’t squeeze in hoops talk until after a three-hour morning meeting. He may be the only person on the planet who coached both leading men of March — Zion Williamson and Ja Morant — before their names meant something, but these houses aren’t going to buy and sell themselves.
“Still, I’m going to smile through the whole workday,” Taylor said.
About 15 years ago, Taylor founded “a little organization” called the South Carolina Hornets to give his hometown youth another travel basketball option. It was a humble operation, one unaffiliated with a shoe company, a passion project for a man who loves to be a mentor in his community. Over the years, he celebrated every developmental feat.
It was a big deal when two-sport star Shaq Roland earned a football scholarship at South Carolina and when Jordan Roper signed to play hoops at Clemson. That felt like the ultimate. And then, four years ago, the trio of Williamson, Morant and Devontae Shuler joined forces on the Hornets.
Shuler, now a sophomore guard at Mississippi, was the man back then. He was a high school sophomore, as was Morant, whose athleticism was rising to the level of his basketball IQ. Williamson was a big freshman whose freakish ability already could reduce your vocabulary to single-word expressions of awe.
Today, Williamson is the Duke pre-professional approaching levels of basketball popularity known only by LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Morant, the mesmerizing Murray State guard whose remarkable sophomore season ended Saturday with a blowout loss to Florida State, has emerged as the sport’s next great point guard. The two South Carolinians could be the first two picks of the NBA draft in June.
Right now, they’re the talk of the NCAA tournament because of their overall talent and their flair for dominating the highlights. They live in a world of triple-doubles, rim-swaying dunks and celebrations too understandable to be considered showboating.
“What’s funny is they’re doing the same things they were doing back then,” Taylor said, laughing. “You always thought that, in college, they won’t be able to do it. In college, the players are bigger and better, right? But they’re doing that same stuff at a higher level.”
Williamson and Morant were together on the Hornets for only one summer. Both had commutes of about 45 minutes to Columbia. Morant stayed with the program throughout his high school years. Williamson bounced around as his fame grew. It’s fair to consider the summer of 2015 as the last simple period of his life.
Taylor could see the future pro in Williamson even then, because as a 15-year-old he was 6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds. He didn’t know he would grow to 6-7 and 280, but Williamson was too powerful and jumped too high to be ignored. Williamson was also humble. He revered the older Shuler.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s the best player in the state,’ ” Williamson said Thursday, reminiscing as both he and Shuler returned to Columbia for the NCAA tournament. “He would impress me with so much. He’d get steals by, like, acting like he got faked out by a spin move and just turn right back. Very explosive scorer. He’d score 15 points straight. I used to just watch in awe of him.”
During that summer four years ago, the Hornets went to North Carolina to play in a tournament. There was buzz about a matchup between Shuler and a team led by another prep star from Columbia, Seventh Woods. But that game gave birth to the first viral video featuring Williamson.
A player from the opposing team seemingly had a breakaway dunk, but Williamson dashed in, jumped higher and pinned the shot against the backboard with two hands. The crowd went bonkers. Then a referee blew his whistle and called a foul.
When Taylor complained about the call, the official told him, “I just got so excited I blew my whistle.”
His Morant stories usually come back to the player’s intellect, maturity and toughness. Morant was the skinny point guard who sacrificed his body for the team, getting into the paint, absorbing punishment and falling often. But he always got up and kept playing.
“He played through so many injuries,” said Taylor, who spoke to Morant and his father on the phone after Murray State’s first-round victory over Marquette. “His heart was as big as they come.”
Taylor admits he didn’t do a lot of coaching that summer. Because the Hornets were so good, he had his ninth- and 10th-graders play against some of the nation’s best 11th-graders all summer, and he estimates they still won about 90 percent of their games. With Shuler’s scoring, Williamson’s explosiveness and Morant’s passing and leadership, they always had an edge.
“A lot of times, I was just a fan like everybody else, watching, saying, ‘Wow,’ ” Taylor said.
He was more than a hype man, actually. He preached many of the qualities that have turned Williamson and Morant into college basketball’s most endearing stars. Never take a play off. Make your teammates better. Play as a family. Carry yourself with class on and off the court.
Williamson reinforces those lessons when he beats a guard to a loose ball, collects himself after dribbling wildly behind his back and rises for a layup with great balance and agility. Morant reinforces those lessons when he takes only nine shots, dishes 16 assists and finishes with a triple-double during a hyped matchup against high-scoring Marquette guard Markus Howard. And when they are asked about their feats afterward, they talk like NBA veterans.
They leave little doubt that they’ll be able to handle face-of-the-franchise responsibilities in the future.
“I’ll tell you what: It does blow my mind,” Taylor said. “I feel very, very fortunate to have coached them. I feel like the luckiest guy in basketball right now.
“And it’s not just about them. It’s about the kids behind them and how they’ll benefit from what they have accomplished. I know the kind of guys they are. I know they’ll be in the gym with our young kids. The next generation is going to know that they can make it.”
A few years ago, the Hornets merged with another local travel basketball organization to form Team South Carolina. Taylor isn’t as involved on a daily basis as he used to be, but he’s still as passionate about the young players. During a conversation, he bragged as much about a few Class of 2019 standouts as he does Williamson, Morant and Shuler. He was just as proud of Charles Jackson III for signing with Iowa State and 5-6 Russell Jones Jr. for signing with Winthrop.
Then he paused and thought again about his most accomplished former players. Even Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari would be jealous.
“I mean, I coached Zion and Ja at the same time, on the same team,” Taylor said. “Can you believe that?”
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.