[caption id="attachment_256679" align="aligncenter" width="1484"] Photo: Rob Kinnan/USA Today
Duke and North Carolina played on Wednesday night. But as we all know by now, the story wasn’t the game itself, but instead, what happened 33 seconds in.
You don’t need me to tell you, but it was at that moment, when Duke star Zion Williamson made a sharp cut – and his foot literally burst out of his shoe. In the process, he went down with a knee injury which caused him to miss the rest of the game.
Of course, before Zion even got up off the floor and walked away under his own power, it sent the internet into a frenzy, re-instigating all the same, tired debates about college sports that never seem to end. And even after the game, even after Coach K came out and said that it was a minor knee sprain, one that wouldn’t keep Zion out for very long, it didn’t stop people from engaging in those same arguments again. People love to complain on the internet (who knew) and man oh man were they on a heater Wednesday.
People were complaining about amateurism. About paying college athletes. And about how it pertains to Zion Williamson specifically. The conversation wrapped with the single biggest talking point in all of college sports today: Should Zion Williamson sit out the rest of the season and get ready for the NBA Draft?
The honest answer is “Zion should do whatever the hell he wants,” and anyone who tells you any differently is just spitting out what side of the narrative they fall on. At the end of the day, whatever Zion Williamson decides is best for him, we should all support it. He’s earned that right after four months of college basketball.
However, if he were asking me for advice, I’d tell him this: Not only should he not shut things down for the season, there isn’t actually one, genuinely good reason why he should. Assuming he is healthy and can’t further damage that knee, he should go play his heart out, chase a championship, and enjoy his final weeks as a kid before he enters a grown man’s world in the NBA.
For starters, let’s get one important notion out of the way right off the top: The biggest reason for Zion to shut it down is “fear of injury.” The problem is, that as I said when Scottie Pippen
first suggested this a month ago, the “fear of injury” risk, isn’t any real risk at all. There is literally no injury that Zion could suffer on the court that will hurt his draft stock. Not a single one. And if the reason for him to shut it down is “fear of injury” well, he’s just as likely to get hurt training and getting ready for the draft as he would be to play in actual games.
Don’t believe me? Well, recent history is littered with guys who suffered injuries during their college careers without it impacting their draft stock one bit. Remember, Kyrie Irving missed most of his only season at Duke – he still went No. 1 overall. Joel Embiid missed his final few weeks at Kansas and it was clear he’d miss his entire rookie year – and he still went No. 3 overall. Nerlens Noel suffered an ACL tear in February – he still went No. 6 in that year’s NBA Draft.
And keep in mind that none of those players was nearly the prospect that Zion Williamson is. None was as nearly as safe of a bet as Zion is at this moment – and yet none of those injuries hurt the individual player’s draft stock. That’s also why I feel confident saying that no injury will keep Zion from going No. 1. He has proven to be too good and way too valuable to a franchise to ever pass up in the draft. Even if God forbid an injury happened, there isn’t a single GM who is risking his entire career by passing on Zion Williamson. If you pass on Zion and he develops into the star we all think he can become, you are never living it down. Again, no one is taking that risk.
Still, let’s take this a step further. Let’s say that hypothetically that major injury did happen to Zion and it caused him to tumble down draft boards. None of us want it to happen obviously, but for the sake of argument, let’s play that game.
You know what would happen? Zion would still
become a millionaire.
That’s because according to Darren Rovell, before the season Duke took out an insurance policy for Zion. It will pay him $8 million dollars if he suffers a major injury. So even if he goes down, he will still be a millionaire.
To which I ask: If he will become a millionaire regardless of what happens, what is the actual reason for him to sit out?
I guess a case could be made that “what’s the point of playing if he isn’t getting paid right now.” Putting aside the fact I’m pretty sure that agents and shoe companies are, ahem, providing “guidance” to the family behind the scenes (I doubt anyone is scraping quarters out of the couch cushions to pay for meals), we already went over this a few weeks ago. When Scottie Pippen first suggested Williamson “shut it down” Zion eloquently explained that it was a non-starter. That he came to Duke to play for Coach K. And that he wants to finish what he started.
We also need to give credit where it’s due to Duke as well. I know the media hates to say anything nice about college basketball, but the bottom-line is that Duke has played in a role in Zion Williamson’s success as well. No one had Zion Williamson the consensus No. 1 pick in this NBA Draft before he arrived at Duke, and I’ve seen mock drafts from the spring and summer that had him as low as No. 4 or No. 5 in the draft. While it doesn’t seem like much, the difference between being the No. 1 pick in the draft and No. 4 is over $12 million in salary over the course of the rookie contract. Therefore, for everyone saying “He could lose millions” by continuing to play college basketball, I’d say that’s simply not true. To take things a step further, the facts are, he’s actually made millions
more than he would have had he been allowed to go to the NBA straight out of high school.
And that doesn’t even include his increased endorsement value, which leads me to this: I actually think the more Zion plays basketball for free in college, the more it will help continue to expand his brand as he inches towards the NBA. Yes, the player with the biggest brand we’ve seen in college basketball in years, could get even bigger.
Think about it.
Over the last couple months, Zion Williamson has gone from a name that basketball junkies and YouTube/Instagram followers knew, to a household name, thanks to college basketball and the exposure he provides. He has become one of the biggest stories in all of sports, someone that isn’t just discussed on basketball podcasts and by Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg, but a real, legitimate talking point among Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and pretty much anyone who talks sports for a living. At this point, Duke games regularly out-rate NBA games (Duke-Virginia actually had more viewers than Rockets-Thunder that same night). At this particular moment, people are as interested in the future of the NBA as they are in the present.
Zion is already a household name, but as big as he is, but isn’t it fair to say he can get even bigger by sticking it out and playing in the NCAA Tournament? Can you imagine him being the biggest talking point in sports for a whole month through March?
It seems like something that shouldn’t matter, but it does. Keep in mind that the Duke-Virginia game drew a little over 2 million viewers – which is absolutely awesome, but pales in comparison to big NCAA Tournament games. As an example, last year’s title game drew nearly 17 million viewers – 17 MILLION – and that was considered a low, bad rating for a title game. North Carolina against Gonzaga did 26 million viewers the year before. That’s 13 times the number that Duke-Virginia did.
It’s insane to think about, but as big as Zion Williamson’s brand is, it could get bigger.
At the end of the day, it’s up to Zion to decide what is best for him.
But as long as he’s healthy, I’d advise him to stick things out and finish what he started at Duke.