FLORHAM PARK – When the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft wants to shoot around, his team jumps into action. That brought New Orleans rookies Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to to Morris County on Friday.
They tested out FDU-Florham’s Ferguson Recreation Center courts a couple of days before the rest of their rookie class arrived for a trading-card photo shoot. But when the gym was overtaken by photographers setting up for Sunday’s event, the Pelicans’ budding stars moved down the road to Morristown-Beard.
“They took us to the gym, and I thought, ‘Is this a school?'” said Williamson, a forward who was taken first after his freshman year at Duke University.
“The athletic director and headmaster were cool about it. But I’m so used to seeing NBA courts that when I walked on, I thought, ‘Man, the high school line is very short.'”
San Antonio rookies sign autographs for Zier Parker and Mehkai Long of Roselle. (Photo: Jane Havsy/Daily Record)
The NBA brought everyone together for the annual, four-day Rookie Transition Program, which begins Monday in Parsippany. It serves as the players’ official introduction to the NBA, according to league rep Mike Wade of Florham Park. The rookies will meet NBA legends and officials, and get educated on the way things work both on and off the court.
But for local basketball players, having these giants in their neighborhood was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“I wanted to see greatness,” said Christian Cevis, the point guard on the West Morris boys basketball team which won the Morris County Tournament at the buzzer.
“I thought it would be a lot of fun. I’m really starstruck right now, with these guys I watch on TV. … I have to get taller, and strength is a big part of it. These guys are big and strong. But seeing small guys like (Sacramento guard) Kyle Guy here gives me a lot of motivation for the future.”
But most of the youngsters in attendance had eyes for only one player: Williamson. He autographed basketballs, T-shirts and slips of paper, and posed for dozens of photos — though few selfies worked out for the 6-foot-7, 284-pound forward.
Even Knicks rookie R.J. Barrett joked that he wanted to swap jerseys with Williamson, his former Duke teammate.
The photo shoot is usually held at the Knicks’ training facility in Westchester County, N.Y. But with that gym under construction, FDU-Florham provided the right combination of size and security.
“This is the best day ever, because I got to see all the basketball players going to the NBA,” said 6-year-old James Noon, who will soon start kindergarten at Monmouth Beach Elementary School.
James, whose aunt is FDU-Florham athletic director Jenn Noon, wore a bright blue Duke T-shirt — representing Williamson, Barrett, and Atlanta’s Cam Reddish, all of whom left college after one season. Henry Sirakovsky IV, a 9-year-old guard from Orangeburg, N.Y., said his favorite Williamson highlight from the NBA Summer League was a rebound and dunk.
“It’s cool to meet people who have the same passion, and are playing on the court in the NBA,” said 13-year-old Mehkai Long, who will be a freshman at M.E.T.S. Charter in Jersey City next month.
“Most people don’t get to meet the players up close. This is a pretty cool experience.”
Staff writer Jane Havsy: 973-428-6682; email@example.com; www.dailyrecord.com/writerjane/