He was recently listed 19th overall in the 2020-21 ESPN Top 100, and according to 247sports.com, he’s the No. 1 player in Kentucky for the Class of 2021, and the No. 8 point guard in the nation.

Yes, Marshall County’s Zion Harmon — committed to Western Kentucky University after choosing between WKU, Kansas, Maryland, Seton Hall and Murray State — is highly, highly regarded.

And he should be. Anybody who has watched him knows his skill-set is rare and elite.

But the high nod from “the mothership” signifies his national gravitas, and it comes as no surprise to his third-year coach in Terry Birdsong, who’s seen nothing but growth from his point man since the first time Harmon stepped foot in Draffenville.

“The thing that people don’t understand about Zion is they’ll say, ‘Yeah, in the First Region, maybe he’s not challenged that much.’ Or, whatever,” Birdsong said. “But he spends all summer playing against the elite players in the country, so he has another level. And we saw it at times this year. But you think about the guys that are about to get drafted in the NBA, and some of the top players in the country, and Zion has battled them head-to-head for years. He was in the (Nike) EYBL league at 15 years old ... the youngest guys to ever play in it at the major level.

“You go down the list and the players, and you look at Zion’s games statistically against them, he’s right there. We know, nationally, he has a gear that will definitely put him as a top player nationally.”

After having to sit during the 2018-19 season following a transfer from Adair County, Harmon absolutely blistered the nets in 2019-20 — averaging 25.4 ppg on 44.3% shooting from the floor (281-for-634), 33.5% from the arc (95-for-284), 84.5% from the charity stripe (131-for-155) while chipping in 3.3 rebounds per game.

Those numbers only got more efficient in the second half of the season, when — from Jan. 14 all the way up to the First Region championship game on March 8 — he shot 48% from the field and 36% from the field, dropping no less than 20 points in 14 of the 16 games.

And it’s this late-season stretch in when Birdsong believes he saw the best out of Harmon. When he saw that “next level” his guard so clearly has and can flash at any moment.

“When it finally got down to win-or-go-home, we saw a different player, in terms of his effort on the defensive end and all the things that (go with it),” Birdsong said. “And some of that we had seen before, but we just saw a better version of it heading down the stretch. He got his teammates involved. Moved the basketball. And we put him on the other team’s best player the last three to-four-games of the season, and we thought he did a heckuva job.

“That’s something we hope will propel him this next season. And we’ve got another challenging schedule. If you look at our schedule over the last two years, I’d put it up against anybody’s. We played everybody, everywhere. And we’ve got another one coming this next year. We’re disappointed with the way it ended in the regional finals, but it gives us some momentum and some confidence with a lot of kids returning. We’re expecting even bigger and better things out of Zion this year. Leadership on the court. Defensive effort consistently each game. We know the other things he can do.”

So it wasn’t of coincidence, then, that the Marshals won 16 of their last 18 games in 2019-20 to finish at 23-11, the only defeats coming by one point to the Calloway County Lakers (a game where Harmon hung up 50 points on 19-for-32 shooting), and by one point to the Mustangs in the title game (where he went 6-for-17, but delivered what was nearly the game-winning assist to a waiting Tyler Powell in the right corner for a lead-grabbing 3-pointer with 11 seconds to go).

Birdsong, at 485 career wins, knows there are several factors that could push Harmon to even more regarded heights in First Region and Kentucky high school basketball lore.

He’s sitting at 2,425 career points at Bowling Green, Adair County and Marshall County, and if he posts a senior scoring season like he did in 2017-18 (1,014 points; 17th-best in KY history), he’ll vault into the top-10 all-time scoring in KHSAA history. Even 70% of that puts him in the 3,000-club, a place where only 35 Kentucky boys basketball players belong in history.

And then there’s the drive for another Marshall First Region title, and perhaps some state hardware — something Harmon tasted in his one year at Bowling Green (2017).

Still, it’s all something to prove.

“Zion coming back next year puts us right in contention,” Birdsong noted, adding he knows the First Region will once again be a gauntlet. “And that’s the most we’re expecting out of him. ‘Put us on your back.’ We’ll be getting on your back. Be a good leader off the court and on the court, and let’s go win this region. That’s the message we’re going to talk about. We’re already talking about it. We were talking about it in the locker room right after the (championship) game.

“The way it ended, I think that gives everyone a little more incentive. A little more fire, because our kids feel like in their heart that it didn’t turn out the way that we thought it should’ve.”

Topper Time

Birdsong never wanted to mettle in Harmon’s recruitment process, and there were understandably a lot of suitors.

But quietly, he was hoping it’d come down to in-state programs like Murray State and Western Kentucky — two programs Birdsong, himself, played for following a stellar career at Marshall County.

“For the casual basketball fan, it doesn’t seem like Western is anywhere close to on the level of some of those other schools,” he said. “But those of us who do this for a living, we know different.

“We know how good Western and Murray State are. Those were the two schools I was pulling for. But as his coach, Zion and his family, they kind of make their own decisions. I would give my input if asked at times, but I was hoping it would be one of those two schools and he would stay in-state.

“Western, I feel like, there’s a lot of strong ties there with Rick Stansbury. Zion and his boys are good friends, so there’s a little history. But I think he’s going to be a terrific player at Western.”

And as for all the noise Harmon was particularly toying with reclassifying for the Class of 2020 and aiming to graduate early?

Yeah, those notions never really had any steam to them. At least, not in Birdsong’s eyes.

“I think it was the plan from the beginning (to stay),” Birdsong added. “Having his father, Mike, back on our staff, we’ve talked about it often. And again, this is just my opinion, but I don’t think they ever really even considered moving up a class. Maybe a little? But I think they were pretty much set.

“Again, they beat to their own drum. And I think they were committed to this (at Marshall). And I think, also — and I think this played a lot in the whole Western deal — but I think they enjoy playing in this state. This is a basketball state that loves basketball, and has a very rich tradition of high school basketball, fan support and interest. And our crowds last year were amazing. There were probably five, six, seven games where we had 3,000-plus people in attendance — both on the road and at home. So, I think that probably factored in a little bit, too.

“But I think Zion is at a school where we can and have played a national schedule to some extent. We’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of things. And I think he was set on coming back this year and picking up where we left off.”

Follow Marlowe on Twitter @dreamarlowe85, call him (270) 575-8661, or email him at emarlowe@paducahsun.com.

Follow Marlowe on Twitter @dreamarlowe85, call him (270) 575-8661, or email him at emarlowe@paducahsun.com.

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