Zimmerman Rise Rooted In Persistence

If you'd watched Stephen Zimmerman play basketball two years ago, you might not have considered him a prospect who ever would challenge for a No. 1 ranking.

A gangly rising freshman in 2011 who landed on the wrong side of Anthony Bennett at the Pangos All-American Camp in a premature head-to-head matchup, he lacked strength, skill and experience.

But from those first awkward appearances on the national circuit — when he already nearly had reached his present 6-11 height — Zimmerman displayed scrap. He didn't appear to lose confidence competing against much older players despite the frequently disappointing results, and by the end of summer he'd served notice that, if for no other reason, that's how he might land among the big-time prospects in the 2015 class.

He then became immersed at Bishop Gorman, where as a freshman he teamed with consensus No. 1 prospect Shabazz Muhammad. His high school team participated at illustrious tournaments, and through Muhammad — controversies aside, no one ever questioned his work ethic — Zimmerman was able to observe how an elite talent pushes through any temptation to become complacent.

Zimmerman then began to fill out his body. Although still skinny at 215 pounds, the big man did gain some precious strength and even more significantly developed enhanced athleticism. He always played with impressive mobility and agility for a tall underclassman, but Zimmerman's speed, quickness and leaping ability began to slot as major assets.

He drew a very early scholarship offer from UNLV and continued to add big-time interest from there, including serious overtures from Arizona, UCLA and Kansas. More recently, Michigan, Kentucky, Duke and Louisville also have joined the chase, among others.

Zimmerman's game blossomed into truly elite status over the past year. He stepped out of Muhammad's shadow at Bishop Gorman and has outshone his 2015 classmates on the travel circuit thus far in the spring and summer. At the prestigious NBPA Top 100 Camp last month, he overcame a still-present lack of strength to score consistently against his elders.

In terms of fluidity and style, Zimmerman may remind of former top-five prospect Anthony Randolph, a Class of 2007 product who attended LSU and now plays for the Denver Nuggets. He's very fleet and angular the way Randolph was at that age, yet he's also slightly taller and therefore able to finish more easily in traffic.

Also like Randolph, Zimmerman is a southpaw. He utilizes a left hand jump hook and soft runners on the move that catch defenses off-guard. He's a fine handler for his size and, though he projects as a post player his entire career, should be able to exploit mismatches against fellow big men away from the basket. With jump shooting range that now extends to 17 feet, opponents must consider him a legitimate threat from range.

Because he's so athletic and despite being so tall, Zimmerman has become a frequent star on highlight reels. He captivated crowds at Pangos this past June, even while two other games were taking place simultaneously. Must-see players aren't always the very best prospects, but you can appreciate his athletic versatility by observing his game's impact on observers.

But none of this should imply that his skills have fully matured. Zimmerman must add weight in order to stand his ground defensively and to become a steady defensive rebounder. He already uses his quickness and length to contribute on the offensive glass, but in certain matchups — such as versus top-10 junior Cheick Diallo at the NBPA Camp — he struggles to block out on the other end.

Zimmerman's place among the elite appears to be secure, but his holding on at No. 1 hardly is a sure thing. He's flanked closely by sensational scoring guard Malik Newman and athletic shotlbocker/rebounder Ivan Rabb. Comparing him to his elite classmates also proves more difficult because, in an increasingly rare development, Zimmerman doesn't compete on Nike's EYBL circuit.

He's the rare non-Nike prospect at the top of the class — he leads Adidas-backed Dream Vision — and those hoping to make side by side comparisons to Newman and Rabb (both Nike products) will enjoy few opportunities to do so.

Moving forward, we'll observe Zimmerman at additional events this summer and obviously throughout his junior high school season. He's only halfway through his prep career, and clearly much will change in rankings and recruitments prior to signing day in November, 2014. But we'll continue enjoying his progress along with everyone else, and don't be surprised if he occupies the top spot a year from now as well.

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