By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
Even when she narrowed her list, Zahra King’s options were varied.
East Coast. West Coast. Places where it was hot. Places where it’s cold. Big 10, Big 12, Big East — even the Ivy League was in the mix late.
The Westtown senior guard took her time to sort through those options. She finished up her final college visit on Sept. 17 and made her decision a little more than a month later before she was ready to announce which school she picked on her birthday, Nov. 3.
King, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native about to enter her fourth season with the Moose, decided to take her talents to the other side of the country at Cal-Berkeley.
“When I was deciding, I realized that all my schools I visited had something special to offer. … Even in my top seven, every place was different, and unique,” King said.
“I love each and every school that I visited, but it was just which school fit me best and which flair I liked the most, and ultimately it was Cal. I love the Bay Area. That's kind of my vibe, my energy. And when I went there in California, it was just like, wow. The area was amazing, of course academics are great at Cal Berkeley, and I'm excited with us moving to the ACC and me being from the East Coast.”
Westtown 2024 guard Zahra King announced her commitment to Cal-Berkeley last week. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
The Golden Bears made the cut for King’s final seven schools along with UCF, Penn State, Wisconsin, Harvard, Marquette and Arizona State. She took visits to UCF, Marquette, Penn State and Arizona State.
The trip to Berkeley, Calif. came in late August after finishing up her grassroots season with New Heights NYC. She grew up as someone who was interested in The Golden State and her visit was her first time making the journey to the place she always thought her relaxed, laid back personality might fit.
“I always knew on the West Coast, people are more chill and like relaxed, laid back,” King said. “That's what I always heard, but I kind of wanted to see it for myself. And then when I actually went out there I was like, yeah, this is what it is, like the West Coast vibe is real. I really liked it, and it matched my energy because I'm a laid back kind of chill person.”
King averaged 13.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.8 apg and 1.5 spg, while shooting 52 percent from the field as a junior for the Moose in 2022-23. The 5-10 guard is a fun player to watch with a boisterous game she believes can provide something different for Cal.
“They just liked what I had to offer as far as my East Coast flair and swag,” King said. “I think for Cal, being able to bring somebody from the East Coast, that kind of has a different flavor, which is good to kind of get a different look at things. You know what I mean? They like the way that I was explosive, the way that I get to the basket, the way that I like swag and control the game. I think that's what they really liked about me when I'm recruiting.”
Her on-court personality was also a good fit for Berkeley.
“The way they play, they love playing in transition and they play off a lot of ball screens,” King said. “It’s a whole bunch of read and react offense, which is something that I personally thrive in. I thrive with a lot of space and like being able to have the freedom to make plays for myself and others. So that's one thing that drew me to them too.”
Cal began recruiting King last fall and she said she talked to fifth-year head coach Charmin Smith on the phone for the first time in January/February, which began a relationship that blossomed over time.
Smith was a star at Stanford in the mid 1990s, winning three Pac-10 titles and reaching three Final Fours as a player. She spent three years in the WNBA and another playing professionally in Sweden before jumping into the college coaching ranks as an assistant at Boston College and Florida.
Before taking over as head coach in 2019, Smith was an assistant for 13 seasons during a fruitful stretch at Cal. The Golden Bears went to 11 NCAA Tournament in 14 seasons from 2005-06 to 2018-19, including a Final Four run in 2013.
Cal hasn’t put together a winning season yet in Smith’s tenure, but the Golden Bears coach hopes King can help her return the program to prominence. King (No. 76) is one of two 2024 Cal commits ranked in ESPN’s Top 100 along with 6-2 California forward Kamryn Mafua (No. 51).
“Immediately I was super interested in (Smith’s) journey and her path at Cal and even before Cal,” King said. “She (played) in the WNBA, played for Stanford, went to a high-academic school, so I was really interested in her journey. … We always have a whole bunch of really good conversations about what it's like being in the Bay Area, what it's like playing high-level basketball and her hopes for Cal-Berkeley's team in the next few years, just to get back to that highly prominent, dominating team.
“We've talked about building and getting back to that dominant point with their program.”
King will be the only Cal player from the East Coast when she arrives on campus. Of the U.S.-born players on the team, there are four from California, one from Utah and one from Arizona. The rest are international players from Greece, Spain, Sweden and Australia. That diversity is another aspect that drew her to Cal.
In a unique twist, King will actually get to play a large chunk of her games on the East Coast.
Cal will become a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference next season along with Stanford and Southern Methodist, a move that came after several other current Pac-12 members left for the Big 10 and Big 12. Games at Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse will be an easier trip for her cheering section than the likes of Washington, Oregon, Arizona, etc.
“It's kind of the best of both worlds because going to California I was kind of skeptical,” King said. “I'm far from home, kind of removed from everybody like my East Coast friends, my family. But now that we’re moving to the ACC, my family, friends, they're gonna be able to come to more games. They're gonna be able to see me more and then I'll still be able to get that East Coast like flavor and flair all the time.”
King wants to become a sports agent after her playing career ends, so Cal-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business was another attractive part of becoming a Golden Bear.
She said her parents and New Heights coaches Dominique Nute and Steve Basquiat helped her through the recruiting process.
It’s a decision she’s happy to have out of the way.
“It was a hard decision, like it was crazy," King said. "The past few weeks after my visit, that entire process of me trying to figure out where I wanted to go, especially because every school is different and every school had something special to offer, that entire process was difficult for me, but ultimately, I think I made the right decision. I'm proud of the decision I made. I worked hard to be in this position and I'm proud of myself.”