Wednesday, Feb. 20 was expected to be a spectacular night for NCAA athletics. After weeks of hype, two of its most storied programs were scheduled to meet on the basketball court: Duke vs North Carolina; Durham vs Chapel Hill; “Coach K” Mike Krzyzewski vs Roy Williams; Zion Williamson vs the Tar Heels. Despite the fact that it was a regular-season matchup, ESPN relentlessly promoted the game on its airwaves like a pay per view fight.
Basketball fans shelled out upwards of $4,000 for nosebleed seats in Cameron Indoor Arena. Celebrities such as Spike Lee, Ken Griffey Jr., Todd Gurley and Hayden Panettiere showed up for the spectacle. Even former President Barack Obama was in the building, decked out in a bomber jacket with “44” embroidered on the sleeve that proved that he’s the real“Swaggy P(OTUS).”
College athletics came to a standstill.
While Duke vs UNC is always a highly-anticipated matchup, the legend of Williamson, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound athletic freak, swelled the hype to another level.
Executives from the major players in college basketball were undoubtedly high-fiving in the luxury suites. The NCAA, ESPN, Nike (and Jordan Brand) all stood to make a windfall off the hype and popularity of the event.
Just 30 seconds into the game, the bubble burst.
Williamson attempted to make a routine basketball move and his shoe exploded as if he’d stomped on a land mine. Williamson fell to the floor and grasped at his knee. There he was. The consensus No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft lay writhing in pain with the world watching.
Many feared the worst – that Williamson may be lost for the season. What would that mean for his draft stock? How would the injury impact his career, his career, his earning potential?
Williamson sat out the rest of the game. Duke players never recovered from the shock of seeing their best player leave the game in a freak accident and UNC waltzed to an 88-72 victory.
Luckily for Williamson, and for Duke, Williamson’s injury was determined to be a relatively minor knee sprain. He is expected to make a full recovery and return in a week or two. However, the injury has sparked a debate in whether he should return to college basketball at all.
After all, the NCAA rakes in over a billion dollars per year in college athletics. Nike, Duke’s sponsor sneaker and apparel company, and ESPN are multi-billion dollar corporations. The Duke and UNC basketball programs rake in tens of millions of dollars each season.
Meanwhile, Williamson and his teammates get a “free education” that involved them working their butts off year-round.
Why is Williamson playing at Duke in the first place? There has been little doubt that Williamson has been physically ready for the NBA for quite some time.
The NBA used to allow players to go straight from high school to the NBA. However, for every LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, there were several Sebastian Telfairs, Robert Smiths or Martell Websters. If you’re wondering who the latter guys are, my point is made.
NBA execs could not stop throwing money at unproven high school kids. Rather than investing money to improve their scouting, owners pushed to institute a rule that players had to be 19-years-old or one year removed from their high school graduating class before they would become eligible for the NBA Draft.
The rule helped push high school standouts to the NCAA for a year of grooming that would help pad college coffers and help weed out the busts from the bona fide stars.
Unfortunately, it meant players like Williamson, who could’ve easily commanded multi-million dollar contracts directly out of high school, were forced to go to college, and risk injury and money.
Former Mizzou player Michael Porter Jr. was widely considered the No. 1 high school player in the country and projected as the No. 1 draft pick in 2018. Unfortunately, a back injury cut his season short and cost him millions of dollars as he ultimately fell to No. 14.
Luckily for all parties involved, Williamson’s injury was not significant and he does not intend to “shut it down” as many have suggested. Such a decision would have reverberated greatly through college athletics.
“I just can’t stop playing,” Williamson told Josh Graham of the Sports Hub Triad. “I’d be letting my teammates 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.”
The day following Williamson’s freak accident, the NBA formally proposed that the draft age be dropped from 19 to 18, according to USA Today. If approved, the rule change would not go into effect until 2022. Though it’s a change the league has been mulling for a while, make no mistake about it, it’s no coincidence that the news leaked the day after Williamson’s injury.
If baseball and hockey players can be drafted straight out of high school, basketball players should have the same opportunity.
The NBA finally has a strong player development system through the G-League. That and the rookie salary cap are likely the mechanisms that have made NBA owners more open to lowering the age requirement. When the Knicks teams make terrible picks, they can stash guys in the G-League to develop and still get some value out of them.
However, a guy like Zion, the most mythical athlete since Bo Jackson, shouldn’t have to pit stop at the NCAA unless he wants to. Luckily the “next Zion” can thank the current one for scaring the NBA into its senses.
Nike isn’t so lucky though. The brand has taken a hit due to its sneaker’s public and catastrophic failure. Williamson was already likely to command a $100M sneaker endorsement contract as a rookie. If Nike wants to court him, the price probably just went up.
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