Zion Williamson stood on the court of Cameron Indoor Stadium awaiting tip-off Wednesday in what had to have been the biggest game of his young life.
The freshman phenom’s Duke Blue Devils were just about to take on their blood rival North Carolina Tar Heels and the entire basketball world was watching, either at home on prime-time television, or in Durham, N.C., itself. Even Barack Obama was sitting courtside in eager anticipation of what was to transpire.
This has been a season both familiar and not for the Blue Devils, whose No. 1 ranking is nothing new, but having three projected top-five NBA Draft picks on their roster is.
Of that trio, Williamson, the presumed No. 1 overall pick this June, has risen above the rest – literally.
The six-foot-seven, 285-pound prodigy has dazzled not just college basketball, but North American sports fans everywhere with his high-flying, stunning feats of athleticism. On Wednesday, he was preparing to do the same on one of sports’ biggest stages, to a national TV audience.
Those in attendance at Duke and watching at home were expecting a moment from him that would get us out of our seats.
And as it turns out, it only took 34 seconds – but for all the wrong reasons.
Dribbling from the left wing and towards the free-throw line, Williamson looked to make a move on North Carolina’s Luke Maye when he planted on his left foot and sprained his knee, prematurely ending his evening.
Duke would go on to lose the game, 88-72, but the result is inconsequential to Williamson, with the NBA Draft a few months away.
The debate now is whether Williamson should play another game for the Blue Devils, healthy or not.
If Williamson would like to pursue accolades such as National Player of the Year, then by all means he should do what is “right” by Duke and the NCAA and make a triumphant return when healthy.
But doing so would be a risk for him, and the case can certainly be made that taking such a risk would be a mistake.
As college basketball writer Adam Zagoria wrote for Forbes back in November, Williamson has the potential to earn $1 billion over the course of his basketball career, presuming he stays healthy.
That was all nearly put in jeopardy because of this injury, which has fortunately been ruled as just a Grade 1 right-knee sprain — a best case scenario that could have easily been far worse.
Therefore the smart thing to do would be to shut it down for the rest of the NCAA season.
After all, what does Williamson owe Duke and the NCAA anyway? He has done them a favour by electing to play collegiate hoops, allowing the school and the collegiate athletic system to profit off him while he’s barred from earning any income or endorsements.
And for those who believe he should return this season to help his Duke teammates win a championship, let me ask: Would you?
The NCAA is as rich as it is because it’s always been a talented minor league that’s never had to pay its players.
But maybe that’s about to change, especially depending on what Williamson decides to do when he’s healthy enough to return.
Back in October, the NBA announced a new from-prep-to-G-League option for elite high school prospects who aren’t yet eligible for the NBA. The league will offer some players “select contracts” paying them up to $125,000.
Such an alternative may seem more enriching than ever to future NBA prospects, given what transpired last night. We may look back at Feb. 20, 2019 as an important turning point in the history of basketball as the night the top NBA prospects took control of their future destinies and say to the NCAA, “We will go unpaid for our talents no longer.”
go play in europe https://t.co/2o2VPbwnYX
— Luka Doncic (@luka7doncic) February 21, 2019
Williamson could be the catalyst for something even bigger than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. For now, however, he’s on the shelf, and soon, he’ll have a decision to make and the choice should be clear: Always look out for No. 1.