Zion Williamson is going to be the first pick in June’s NBA draft. This was not immediately apparent at the start of the preseason (we had him No. 5 on our initial board), but it’s a lock now. The gap between Williamson and whoever goes No. 2 — teammate R.J. Barrett being the current frontrunner — is massive.
The only thing that can slow down Williamson is a major injury. He suffered a minor one last weekend when he was poked in the eye against Florida State and missed the second half of Duke’s victory. He was on the floor for a significant one earlier this week when teammate Tre Jones sprained his shoulder diving for a loose ball that will keep him out indefinitely.
This is the context to the conversation that’s swirling around Williamson at the moment. It’s a conversation started by NBA legend Scottie Pippen, who said Zion should stop playing for Duke immediately to avoid putting himself at risk for injury ahead of the draft.
Here are Pippen’s words, transcribed:
“I think he’s locked up the biggest shoe deal, I think he’s definitely going to be the No. 1 pick, I think he’s done enough for college basketball that it’s more about him personally,” Pippen said on ESPN’s “The Jump.” “I would shut it down. I would stop playing because I feel he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career.”
This has become a talking point everyone has an opinion on. We have some thoughts, too.
1. Zion hasn’t said or indicated anything to suggest he’s even thinking about this
Do not blame Williamson for this conversation because he has yet to even acknowledge it. Duke is gearing up for one of the biggest games of the season on Saturday when undefeated Virginia visits Durham. For Williamson personally, this talk amounts to nothing more than an unwelcome distraction.
The only reason people are talking about this is because Pippen put the idea out into the void. It feels like the perfect topic for this moment in time when everything is debated endlessly on a variety of platforms for a 24-hour newscycle. It’s a topic custom-built for Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless to scream about.
Still, there’s a reason why this isn’t a ridiculous conversation to have.
2. College football’s best players are already doing this
High-profile college football players projected at the top of the NFL draft have been choosing to sit out bowl games for a few years now. This was famously done by running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey before they entered the draft. This year’s projected No. 1 pick, Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, chose to leave school in October as he was rehabbing an injury.
This is the first time this conversation has happened in basketball. No one debated if Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, and Jaren Jackson Jr. should out last year (though Tom Izzo did his best to ensure Jackson’s health). Given the overwhelming consensus that Williamson is this year’s top pick, the fact that we’re having this conversation shouldn’t be that surprising.
3. If Williamson did hypothetically chose to sit out, it would change college basketball forever
Do you know who teenagers look up to more than anyone else? Older teenagers! If Zion did shut it down in the middle of the season, you can bet next year’s top prospects like Anthony Edwards (read my profile!), Cole Anthony, and James Wiseman would take notice. Just like in football, it only takes one star player to turn a conversation into a trend.
At least until the age limit is finally abolished (more on this later).
4. Scottie Pippen isn’t wrong about this part ...
“I think he’s done enough for college basketball”
This is true. College basketball has had a lot of value for Williamson. He wasn’t the consensus No. 1 pick coming into the season. Being all over ESPN 24/7 has certainly helped his marketing value. At this point, Williamson might already be more famous than 99% of NBA players.
He’s also not getting anything more out of NCAA ball at this point, which is Pippen’s point. Beating Buffalo in the Sweet 16 won’t get Zion a bigger rookie deal in the NBA. Winning a national championship probably won’t get him any more endorsement money.
Williamson’s reputation as a player and image as a spokesman is already set. College basketball isn’t doing anything for him at this point. However ....
5. College basketball still needs Zion Williamson
Duke’s pursuit of a national title with Williamson leading the charge is going to be the biggest story in sports post-Super Bowl. People are likely going to be talking about the NCAA tournament more than ever this season because Zion will be in it. Ratings are going to be huge when he’s playing. All of this means the NCAA is making money, even if the the players shamefully cannot.
Can you imagine the reaction of television and advertising executives if Williamson chose to sit out? The man has an entire economy swirling around him that he isn’t even allowed to personally capitalize on yet.
6. Imagining Coach K’s reaction is the best part of this
Mike Krzyzewski didn’t always embrace the one-and-done. It isn’t hard to find stories of Coach K throwing a tantrum when Corey Maggette and William Avery had the audacity to leave school early 20 years ago.
Krzyzewski would be just furious if this hypothetically happened — and that would be delightful to Duke haters everywhere. In fact ....
7. Why wouldn’t R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish also shut it down if Zion chose to?
Barrett would be a top five pick if he didn’t play another game. Reddish would be a top-10 pick if he didn’t play another game. It’s possible Duke’s entire superstar trio of freshmen could shut it down right now and still go 1-2-3 in the NBA draft come June.
Coach K would be so mad. There are Duke haters around the world with a big, dumb smile on their face right now just considering this scenario.
8. Zion should do whatever Zion wants
If Williamson did want to shut it down, he deserves to have unanimous support. Pippen is right that he’s already done enough for Duke and for college basketball. Anyone with half a brain should be able to see that Williamson would be well within his right to maintain his body and his earning potential by ensuring he’s healthy as he enters the NBA.
But if he wants to keep playing, hey, that’s cool, too. Watching Zion Williamson play basketball is great, and he’s going to make the NCAA tournament so much more exciting.
9. Zion will be asked about this, and he’ll handle it with grace
Seriously: part of the reason this dude is about to make billions is because he’s so thoughtful and charismatic in front of a camera. You know these questions are coming. It would be overwhelming for most 18-year-olds, but it likely won’t be for Williamson.
10. Now, real talk: Zion does not seem like the type of player who would actually shut it down
Williamson’s hyper-competitiveness is one of the best things about him. This is a player who competes with intensity on both ends every second he’s on the court. He’s a team-first player in every way. You only need to hear Zion talk about The Brotherhood (Duke’s newest self-proclaimed nickname) for a minute to realize how important his lone college season is to him.
Even if Zion is well within his right to shut it down for the NBA, he just doesn’t seem like the type of player who would do that. But for those who come after him ...
11. This will continue to be a talking point until the NBA’s age limit is abolished
The NBA is aiming to abolish the age limit by 2021 or 2022. It could be a few long years for college coaches with top NBA prospects on their team.
The players are well-aware that everyone involved in college basketball is making money but them. You couldn’t fault any athlete for choosing to ensure his long-term future over playing for free. The only way to get out from under this discussion is giving the players the option to turn pro out of high school. Until that happens, you can bet we’ll be having this conversation every year.