The biggest story in American sports, the argument that every daytime sports talk show that embraces debate will have on Thursday morning, will center around Zion Williamson and the right knee injury that he suffered when the Nike PG 2.5 on his left foot blew out on Wednesday night.
Zion’s injury is going to be a tipping point, but not the one we want. This isn’t going to change the rules of amateurism or put an end to the one-and-done rule, but that rumbling you hear in the distance is a slew of television producers foaming at the mouth as they brainstorm ways they can frame the discussion about whether or not Zion made the correct decision to keep playing once his status as the No. 1 pick and the biggest brand to ever enter the NBA was already cemented.
It’s going to be everywhere.
And 99 percent of the opinions that you hear are going to end up missing the point.
Because it’s simple, really: Zion Williamson is not the example you want to use when discussing the ills of the NCAA and amateurism, and the only person with a right to an opinion on whether or not he made the correct decision is Zion Williamson himself.
Let’s start with the latter: The reasoning behind Zion shutting his season down now is sound. The kid is the biggest sensation college basketball has seen in years. He’s not even 19 years old and he has already reached a point where you mention his first name and everyone knows who you are talking about. He could leave college today and sign endorsement deals worth more than a winning Powerball ticket. He’s a lock to join the pantheon of players that get their biggest paychecks from someone other than the team they play for.
Like LeBron, like Kevin Durant, like Stephen Curry, basketball is going to be Zion’s side gig at the next level.
Duke is calling the injury Zion suffered a mild knee sprain. He’s lucky. It could have been worse, and for a kid whose career hinges on being more explosive than just about any other human being on the planet, all it takes is for one unlucky slip or one popped achilles to see some of those dollars signs start to dry up.
“Why would he risk all that when he’s not getting paid anything to play?”
It’s a good question, one with a really, really simple answer: Because playing for Duke, playing with these teammates, makes the kid happy.
“I can’t just stop playing,” Zion said last month when he was asked about comments Scottie Pippen made saying he should shut it down. “I’d be letting my teammates down, I’d be letting Coach K down, I’d be letting a lot of people down. If I wanted to sit out, I wouldn’t have went to college. I came to Duke to play.”
Anyone that has seen the schoolboy enthusiasm and unbridled emotion that Zion plays with every second he is on the floor for Duke would know that isn’t just lip service.
He meant it.
He may not be getting paid, but he is having a blast.
Which brings me to the next point: I am as anti-amateurism as anyone on the planet this side of Jay Bilas, but Zion is not the kid to use as an example of all that is wrong with the NCAA and their arcane rules.
Because he did not enter college as the surefire No. 1 pick in the draft. R.J. Barrett did. There was talk that Cam Reddish could end up being the No. 1 pick if things played out a certain way this year. Zion was looked at as a potential top five pick. He was the No. 5 player in his recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. No one really knew how his athleticism was going to translate to the college level. No one knew if he actually had the skill set to be more than a big-bodied dunker.
Turns out he does.
Turns out that he is probably the best prospect that we have seen come through college basketball since Anthony Davis was cutting down the nets for Kentucky in 2012.
Turns out that Zion is must-see TV and the most in-demand ticket this side of LeBron and Steph Curry. When the Lakers come to your city, you get tickets to go see LeBron. When the Warriors come through, fans pour out to see Steph and to see KD. When Duke hits the road, fans are clamoring for tickets on the secondary market to see Zion.
It wasn’t this way before he got to college, not on this level. He had the Instagram followers and he was a YouTube sensation, but so was Mac McClung. How many of you know who he is, or would be willing to shell out a mortgage payment to see him play for Georgetown?
Put another way, we wouldn’t be talking about Zion becoming a billion-dollar athlete if he had gone straight to the G League or spent a year tucked away in some smoky gym in Europe, or China, or Australia.
Do I think that is borders on criminal that Zion is not allowed to tap into the revenue streams that he has helped create right now?
He might be the only person that is not finding a way to capitalize on his name. Think about the ticket prices. Think about the money made at the bars and restaurants around every venue he plays in. DraftKings Sports Book ran a special tonight on Zion Williamson prop bets, and they won every single one of them when he went out in the first minute. Hell, I can’t even claim innocence. This will be the third thing that I publish on Zion tonight and the sixth thing in the last two days centered around his role in this rivalry game.
He should be allowed to get his cut right now.
He shouldn’t have to wait until he’s done with his collegiate eligibility to go get that money.
But he will get it eventually, and in the long run, the brand notoriety and status that he has earned as a household name having spent just one season playing in college will end up meaning he makes millions and millions and millions more in his career.
All of that will happen after he goes No. 1 in the 2019 draft.
And as long as Zion walks up to that podium and shakes Adam Silver’s hand content with the decisions that he made, then none of the noise matters.