SEVIERVILLE — Before starting high school, Jonathan Zhao and his family packed their things, picked up and found a new home over 2,200 miles or about 32 hours from San Diego.
All Zhao ever wanted to do was play ball, and his goals and aspirations were unchanged despite everything around him changing.
“(Sevier County) was a place God led us to,” Zhao said. “We had some friends move here and my stepfather helped them move. When he came here he fell in love with the place and realized God was calling us here so he decided to move us here.”
After arriving, Zhao’s stepfather visited a couple of schools in the area, scouting our where Zhao would go to school and play basketball. Sevier County, with head basketball coach Ken Wright, was the only choice for where Zhao would go on to star on the court.
“His stepdad walked in my office and said his family was moving here from California and that he had a son who played basketball,” Wright said.
“He said he had done some research and that Sevier County High School was where he wanted him to go. We welcomed Jonathan with open arm.”
Zhao’s stepdad showed Wright videos of Zhao playing in AAU tournaments as an eighth grader, and while he could shoot the ball, Zhao still had a long way to become to player he is today.
Flash forward to the present, and Zhao has signed with nearby Carson-Newman University and he is far from the skinny shooter that arrived in East Tennessee almost four years ago.
“Jonathan was skinny as a freshman and we talked about what his goals were. He wanted to be a basketball player. That is all he wanted to do,” Wright said.
“What we have worked on over the last few years is to get him to become a complete player. He had to get bigger and stronger. Jonathan took that upon himself.”
Helping him blossom, Zhao has worked on the family farm over the last several years to help him become the complete player that he always dreamed of.
He has spent countless hours at the farm and did many jobs, including helping his stepdad dig holes to put in fence posts. Wright has even seen videos of him chopping wood.
Zhao believes that added to his strength and helped him become stronger on the court.
“He built himself up because he was chasing his dream,” Wright said.
Over the years, Zhao said he has gotten better at defense, taking the ball to the hoop and almost every other aspect of the game. He credits his growth to a lot of things, but one of them is his head coach.
“When I was playing in California I was really only focused on scoring,” he said.
“Coach Wright taught me to become an all-around player. He showed me how to play at both ends of the floor.”
As for Wright, he is thankful that the skinny, streaky shooter that Zhao was four years ago showed up from the other side of the country.
His competitiveness and work ethic has been unparalleled, and that has helped lead the Smoky Bears and Zhao to success.
“I tell kids all the time that coaches don’t make college players. First you have to have the gift from God of having a little athleticism,” Wright said.
“Next, you have to have a work ethic. All we do is teach you what it takes to play at the next level. Jonathan has worked on his own and in the offseason.”