The likely No 1 pick in June’s NBA draft suffered a shocking injury that puts a fine point on college basketball’s student-athlete sham
Thirty-three seconds into the biggest college basketball game of the season, the sport’s biggest star went down with a bizarre injury as Zion Williamson’s shoe exploded and he sprained his knee.
In a fractured sport, where players cycle through in eight-month incriminates, college basketball is now all about the brands: Kansas, Kentucky, Coach K and, lately, Zion. He is already the biggest thing in college sports; a brand unto himself.
Passers-by with little interest in college hoops will pause to replay a Williamson highlight: an extraordinary feat of athleticism unlike anything we’ve seen before: someone so big being able to move in such violent jolts.
He’s delivered helicopter dunks; a dunk from the free throw line; blocked a corner three, leaping above the rim and gobbling up ground in an instant. He dented a basketball using just his fingers. I repeat: he dented a basketball.
Now you can add Wednesday’s shocker to the growing Legend of Zion. He is the man who could not be contained by shoes.
The only apt comparison is Usain Bolt, a man who through sheer force of excellence and personality burst out of athletics’ fuddy-duddy ways and transcended into international superstardom.
That’s the thing about Zion. His game translates globally. You don’t have to understand the nuances of the pick and roll. There’s no need to discuss hedging on defense. Just watch him leap and bounce and slam and you’re awed by the ferocity of his play.
He is a basketball savant and marketer’s dream. He is overwhelmingly projected to be the No 1 pick in June’s NBA draft. There are no sure things, but pick someone else and you risk a revolt from your fanbase.
Wednesday night’s incident has re-ignited the never-ending debate of whether top basketball stars should skip college, and why the NBA forces them to wait a year before turning pro.
Why is this a big deal?
College basketball doesn’t get bigger than Duke v North Carolina, particularly with two of the top three players in the country on show.
Tickets cost $2,500 on the resale market. The salaries for the two coaches are combined $11 million. It’s the crown jewel of an Atlantic Coast Conference broadcast rights package that ESPN shells out nine figures for.
Yet the young stars who drew the eyeballs of millions are amateurs paid in room, board, and “education”.
Fortunately, Williamson’s injury isn’t as grave as first feared. Duke confirmed the star has a Grade 1 right knee sprain and is considered day-to-day. Whether or not he suits up again for Duke this season remains in doubt.
What did Nike say?
Nike, Duke’s shoe partner, called the explosion an “isolated incident”.
“We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery,” a Nike statement said. “The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”
As odd as it looked, this isn’t the first time Nike’s have been known to spontaneously blow.
How much money could a serious injury cost Williamson?
The presumptive No 1 overall pick will earn close to $42m over the lifespan of his rookie deal, with approximately $19m fully guaranteed in the first two years.
Williamson has an $8m loss of value insurance policy, according to the Action Network’s Darren Rovell. But the policy only pays out if he slips past the 16th pick in the draft, which wouldn’t happen regardless of how bad his injury turned out to be.
Is there anything the NBA or NCAA can do to change the rules that keep star athletes in school?
It’s important to note here that the age requirement that forces high schools’ top basketball stars to spend a year in college or explore outposts in Europe or China, is the NBA’s rule, not the NCAAs.
But it would be intellectually dishonest to claim the NCAA had no role in the decision. It works well for both sides, at least in theory: the NBA gets more time to evaluate young talent before sinking millions of dollars into an asset; the NCAA gets stars to help showcase its billion-dollar March Madness product.
In reality, it hasn’t quite worked that way. One-and-done culture has made a mockery of the so-called student-athlete experience. Top stars can spend as little as six months enrolled in school, only extended if their team makes a deep tournament run – time that’s spent away from campus. And as a greater divide develops between the college game and the pros – the pace, the style, the rules – NBA teams are evaluating prospects based on their “tools” more so than college production.
Lesser players can furnish their brands, sure. But in the information/viral age, top high school players have the same individual pulling power as they do in college. A mini-documentary following a day in Williamson’s life as a high school star has eclipsed 4.9m views.
The NCAA needs Williamson’s star wattage more than he needs them.
On Thursday, the NBA’s players’ union formally proposed dropping the age requirement from 19 to 18. That would allow players to go straight from high school to the NBA. The timing is not related to Williamson’s injury, according to USA Today.
The NBA has been hesitant to strike a deal that didn’t include requirements for all players to release their pre-draft medical records to all teams (something agents use to leverage where their clients may or may not end up).
Should Williamson stop playing for Duke immediately and prepare for the draft?
If Williamson wanted to chase money, he should drop out of school now, call Morant and put on a pay-per-view one-on-one game or dunk contest, similar to The Match staged by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in November. Each would stand to make millions outside of the NCAA system while taking on less physical risk.
But perhaps that’s not what drives Williamson. Perhaps he likes being around his teammates. Perhaps he really, really wants to chase a Final Four spot and a championship. Perhaps the college experience – regardless of the fact it’s unique to him and not a true representation of college – is more valuable than the cash that he will make down the road.
If not, and Williamson’s goal is to maximize his earning potential, his gap year in collegeserves only to create problems and potentially cost him millions.