Feature article originally printed in the September through December edition of the Lancashire Spinners’ Born and Red Magazine and on www.lancashirespinners.co.uk. Photos courtesy of and credited to Deng Top 50.
ZION TORDOFF CASUALLY plucks the ball out of the air before breaking up the floor without a second thought. By the time he reaches midcourt it’s evident what is going to happen next. In three swift steps he drags his six-foot-six frame from the 3-point line to being airborne with the basketball rolling off his fingertips towards the orange rim. Count it. Two points.
After landing, he jogs back up the floor as if nothing’s changed. It’s become so routine through countless repetition that he expects that result every time. And it’s only adding to confidence already brimming over ahead of a first full season in National League One.
From January, when he made the initial leap to the Spinners from Division Three, until now, there’s a noticeable difference in the way Tordoff plays.
“That’s my guy,” said Kyle Carey, who watched his former Lancashire Spinners team play USA Select from his dorm room on the University of Northern Colorado campus 4,485 miles away.
Carey was so fluid attacking the rim during his season with the Spinners, as well as in the Elite Academy Basketball League with Myerscough College. In 36 games in Bury he racked up 357 points of total offence, ranked fourth on the team. He also had a team season- high of 35 points in a win over Kent.
If there’s anyone you want in your corner, it’s someone who has been there, done it and has the t-shirt to boot.
“I had to let him know I was proud of him and what he’s accomplished this year,” Carey continued. “He’s really put people on notice.”
Zion Tordoff drives the basket during the Deng Top 50 All-Star Game. Photo: Deng Top 50
SHORT OF A KITTEN cleverly placed atop his shoulder, à la Rob Gronkowski 2014, to complete the look, Zion Tordoff is the real deal on and off the court. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for him to admit it.
“I would like to think all this attention is down to the hard work I’m putting in on and off the court,” said Tordoff. “I’m really just taking it all in stride and I’m thankful that I’m in such a positive and supportive environment.”
He’s leaned on the success he saw first-hand by the 2015-16 No. 1 overall Deng Top 50 prospect — and former Myerscough and Spinners teammate — Carey, who secured a scholarship to Division I university in America.
Not to mention Carey was in a similar position when he entered the season with a chip on his shoulder following the 2015 Deng Camp.
“In terms of attitude and action on the court, Kyle is a big inspiration. We’re really good friends and it was great to be able to watch him work on his game and see what confidence can do for young players,” said Tordoff.
Carey’s message to Tordoff is simple: stay focused.
That’s something Tordoff doesn’t need to be told twice, as he is dedicated to basketball whether it is in the weight room or getting up last-minute reps after practice. He’s even surprised himself at times with the amount of effort and time he’s devoted. And he tries to squeeze every ounce out of trainings to make the most of them.
“Zion has a tremendous work ethic,” said Spinners and Myerscough College head coach Neal Hopkins. “He’s also just a great teammate, who is well-respected in the locker room because he does his job to the best of his ability every time he is asked to. He never stops learning and is well-receptive to coaching, which allows me to do my job.”
“Everything I’ve been able to do basketball wise is a reward for the principles I set for myself: work hard, learn, don’t settle and believe.”
— Zion Tordoff, Lancashire Spinners forward
The 17-year-old Tordoff earned his first place on the England Under-18 roster, which competed at the Division B European Championships in Macedonia at the end of July. The team underperformed by its standards and finished ninth, but reeled off five-straight wins to close out the tournament.
And he made it an objective to take full advantage of his 15.5 minutes per game, ranked fifth on a loaded roster that included the No. 1 overall player from the 2016 Deng Camp, RJ Eytle-Rock, who narrowly edged him out for the top spot.
“It was a big blow to miss out on the U16 Division A European Championships,” admitted Tordoff. “I know I was close, but the coaches made their choice. It showed me sometimes things don’t go your way, but the key is to focus on the big picture.”
Tordoff, who talks quickly and with an unmistakable enthusiasm, made the Under-18 roster a year ahead of schedule. He averaged 8.8 points and three rebounds in eight games, scoring in double figures in half of them.
A 16-point effort against Georgia to close the Championships capped off a brilliant experience, which also included a team-high in a win over Iceland.
“Not only making the team, but being successful as well, was down to my hard work and growth as a player,” he said. “The coaches and environment at Myerscough College had me mentally and physically ready for the demands of playing at that level.”
Standing at six-foot-six, the Bradford native was always going to be prepared.
In January he made the jump from playing with Myerscough College’s Division Three team under the watchful eye of Hopkins to the Spinners in Division One where he made his debut against the Essex Leopards.
It was fearless.
“Everything I’ve been able to do basketball wise is a reward for the principles I set for myself: work hard, learn, don’t settle and believe,” Tordoff said. “I know I will make mistakes along the way, but that is what will help me grow as a player.”
Prior to joining the Spinners, Tordoff was averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds in Division Three, as well as 13.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in the EABL for Myerscough.
His performance through the season earned him a place in the 2016 Under-17 HoopsFix All-Star Classic game where he led Team Black to a come-from-behind win and was awarded Most Valuable Player honours. Tordoff finished with 18 points, six rebounds and four steals.
“I have the ability to deal with both success and failure,” he said. “So much of this game is mental and I’ve put in a good body of work where my confidence has reached an all-time high. But my own expectations as I continue to progress to high levels of basketball will never allow me to become complacent.”
Tordoff (right) poses with two-time NBA All-Star Luol Deng (left). Photo: Deng Top 50
IT’S NOT A complicated formula.
“I love the grind,” Tordoff said. “It’s just fun to me, along with the process of getting better – believe in the hard work and stick to the plan.”
The shot is smooth. With his hands up and ready to receive a pass, it’s a quick catch and shoot, a motion that lasts just over half a second before the ball is released.
“Zion is fundamentally sound, but he’s also just trying to be himself,” said Hopkins.
In the team’s opening practice of the season there was a moment that stood out where Tordoff got hold of the ball on the edge of the 3-point line before a sweeping move from left to right helped him step past Connor Murtagh, a former Great Britain Under-20 player, and towards the baseline. He took off and then accepted contact mid-air from David Ulph (a stone heavier), as he casually lofted a left- handed floater over a swatting hand into the hoop.
There was no pomp. No circumstance.
“On court I can come across as being super serious,” Tordoff laughed. “But I like to have a bit of fun … live in the moment because life is good.”
One glance at his SnapChat and it’s consistently full of laughs he’s having with teammates before or after practice, and around Myerscough during lunch or in the dorms.
Newcomer James Banton is a regular feature, often mischievously up to no good.
Tordoff is going to continue being himself, which is calm, but never short of a recognisable smile.
“Basketball is taking me to places I might have never experienced otherwise,” he said.
Self-proclaimed as humble — though it can be confirmed as fact — Tordoff finished with a fitting joke after being asked about his Deng Camp photo-shoot: “GQ have been in touch.”