In a town that has plenty of hoops pedigree, from Team USA tryouts to the NBA Summer League to the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels—the team that represents the very soul of the city—the most important figure is a Bishop Gorman High School junior still in the “Bambi walking on ice” stage of his basketball development.
That’s not just because Stephen Zimmerman is a great player, although that’s where it begins. The 7-footer is generally regarded as the No. 1 or 2 recruit in the nation for the Class of 2015, and he’s already registering on the professional radar (one scout called Zimmerman a prospect that NBA people will be “very excited about” when he becomes eligible to turn pro). It’s not uncommon to look into the stands at a Gorman game and see a veritable Mount Rushmore of college coaches—Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Roy Williams—on hand to watch him rain sweet left-handed jumpers, block shots into the stands and dunk on overmatched opponents.
Zimmerman’s passing ability is advanced, especially for his size, and he sees the floor in a way that leaves those college coaches drooling. At an AAU event in which Zimmerman was playing over the summer, one coach said Zimmerman is the type of big man a team can run its entire offense through.
But it’s when you get past the sheer talent that you start to really understand why Zimmerman is such a big deal in Las Vegas. He’s a big man with an outsize personality, and at 17 years old, he handles celebrity with an ease about himself—which is good, since Zimmerman estimates he’s recognized about 90 percent of the time he goes out. “I’m 7 feet tall and I’m good-looking, so I’m kind of hard to miss,” he says with a laugh.
When he doesn’t want to be recognized, he’ll stay home or head over to friend and teammate Chase Jeter’s house. But when he wants to catch a movie or just have dinner out with his family, fans will approach him in public to ask for photos. And Zimmerman obliges. “You never know, something could happen tomorrow and the fame and all that stuff could go away,” he says. “So I’m happy to do it while it’s here.”
With his combination of elite-level skills and strong mental makeup, it’s easy to envision Zimmerman arriving on a college campus in the fall of 2015 and immediately becoming a superstar on and off the court. He just finished leading Gorman to a third straight state championship, averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks for the season, and posting 11 points and 12 rebounds in the title game against Canyon Springs, despite constantly being swarmed by defenders.
Judging by all those coaches in the stands, Zimmerman has the potential to bring the same type of success to whatever college program lands him. Which brings us to the biggest reason why Zimmerman owns Las Vegas right now: UNLV wants him. In the worst way.
Zimmerman shapes up as an almost-too-good-to-be-true hometown hero, and Rebels coach Dave Rice is doing everything in his power to keep the big man in Las Vegas, even if it’s just for one year before Zimmerman bolts for the pro ranks.
On the first day coaches were allowed to contact players over the summer, UNLV sent Zimmerman 86 separate recruiting letters. He’s been on countless unofficial visits to the UNLV campus, he’s tight with the coaching staff and he was a familiar face at the Thomas & Mack Center for Rebels home games this season.
Not only would Zimmerman be the highest-ranked high school prospect ever to commit to UNLV, but Rebels fans already know him. They’ve watched him go a perfect 3-for-3 in leading Gorman to state titles. They’ve watched him rise to the top of the recruiting rankings. They’ve spotted him around town, taken pictures with him, told him how much they want him to stick around and play at UNLV.
To his credit, Zimmerman has done his best not to lead anyone on. He’s always quick to say that UNLV is in the mix for his services, but that he’s open to other schools as well (Kentucky, UCLA, Arizona and Louisville are among the very interested parties).
It hasn’t done much to temper the expectations of the local fan base, of course, but give Zimmerman points for trying.