Zion Williamson’s immediate future in college basketball was a topic of national debate well before he sprained his right knee by literally blowing through his shoe in the opening minute against North Carolina on Wednesday.
Scottie Pippen went on ESPN and suggested Williamson should sit out for the remainder of the college season back in January after it became clear he had solidified himself as the top pick in June’s draft. The idea had enough legitimacy that Williamson himself was asked about it and LeBron James referenced it before the NBA All-Star weekend.
If Pippen started the conversation, Williamson’s busted shoe and sprained knee took it to a whole new level this week.
Maybe its because the cheap tickets for Duke vs. North Carolina were going for $2,500. Maybe it’s because former President Barack Obama was sitting courtside, because it happened just 33 seconds into the game between college basketball’s premier rivals and on a night the NBA took off. You couldn’t turn on the TV the next day without everyone giving an opinion on whether Williamson was best off shutting it down for the rest of the year ahead of the NBA Draft.
Keep in mind this entire debate unfolded before we knew the severity of Williamson’s injury. On Thursday, Duke announced Williamson had a Grade 1 knee sprain and would be day-to-day. In a way, the ambiguity of his status even after the diagnosis means this debate should only get more intense.
Should Williamson play again this season for Duke? Should Williamson shut it down now to ensure his health for the draft? There’s a simply answer to all of this. The debate begins and ends with something like this:
It’s very easy to make the argument Williamson should sit
Williamson is a lock to be the first pick in the draft come June. That made Pippen’s original argument an easy one: Williamson couldn’t improve his stock and shouldn’t risk injury ahead of the draft. He also didn’t owe Duke anything when all he was getting in return was a scholarship while everyone else involved in college basketball was getting rich off of him.
When Williamson went down clutching his knee against UNC, it felt like the entire world made this point. Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell chimed in early:
Again let’s remember all the money that went into this game.... and these players get none of it.... and now Zion gets hurt... something has to change @NCAA— Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) February 21, 2019
So did last year’s freshman phenom in college basketball, now-NBA rookie Trae Young:
Zion Need To Chill Out The Rest Of Season...— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) February 21, 2019
It wasn’t just NBA players making this point — it was pretty much everyone.
You know how the old saying goes: a meme is worth 1,000 words.
Yes, the NCAA does not fairly compensate athletes. This is widely accepted at this point. A lot of people have been making money off Williamson since he rose to notoriety, from the mixtape makers that followed him religiously in high school, to the TV networks that use him to drive up ratings, to Duke selling out stadiums and selling even more merchandise.
College sports are a con in plain sight. Williamson was very aware of this when he decided to go to Duke.
It’s more likely that Williamson will play
Will Williamson play again for Duke this season if he’s healthy enough to do so? Well, he was already asked this in the fallout from the conversation Pippen started back in January:
“I can’t just stop playing,” Williamson said. “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.”
Shutting it down would be a business decision for Williamson. At 18 years old, he’s currently in the last stretch of his life where he’s not a businessman. That will come when Duke’s season ends and he becomes a professional. For now, he’s just a basketball player, and there’s something kind of beautiful about that even if the money changing hands because of his star power is downright disgusting.
Williamson was wearing Paul George’s signature Nike shoe when he got hurt. George was asked if Williamson should sit out even if he’s healthy enough to play and immediately shut down the question.
“Because he got hurt? That’s part of the game,” George said. “Injuries are part of the game. That’s getting a little too much into business stuff. He went to college to play basketball, to win a championship ultimately. To get injured one time, if he wants to shut it down — injuries are part of the game.”
James also noted that he was impressed by Williamson’s commitment to Duke a week before the injury vs. North Carolina.
“I can relate in a sense of he’s been covered since he was in high school and everybody is trying to compare him to the next this or the next that. But the best thing I’ve noticed is he seems like a good kid. He seems like he’s got his head on straight,” James said. “And when they asked him about, you know, guys in our league and people who cover our league talking about, ‘If I was Zion Williamson, I would sit out for the rest of the year,’ he was like, ‘That’s [silly]. Why? I’m here to play basketball. I love to play basketball. I’m here at Duke, I’m having fun. These are my friends. I’m having a great time. Why would I sit out?’
”That’s the type of s--- that strikes me. Everybody gets so caught up in the game itself. I look at the intangibles. And he seems like he has great intangibles and seems like a great kid.”
Remember what Williamson said: “I came to Duke to play.”
As long as this isn’t a season-ending injury, it would be a surprise if he shut it down, even if that’s the smart business move.
What should Williamson do? Whatever he wants to do.
If Williamson isn’t 100 percent healthy and doesn’t feel comfortable returning to Duke because of it, he is totally within his right to shut it down ahead of the NBA Draft. He deserves unanimous support should this happen.
If Williamson decides he wants to try to win a national championship playing with his friends, he should get 100 percent support on that decision, too.
Williamson can’t turn on the TV right now without seeing people he grew up idolizing debate his future on a 24-hour news cycle. His injury doesn’t just feel like the biggest story in college hoops, it feels like the biggest story in all of sports. Through all of the media coverage, he’s maintained a level of humility and gratitude most people regardless of field or fame could never reach.
A year ago, Williamson was thinking about prom. Now he’s enjoying his one and only year of college. A year from now, his life will be about business as much as it’s about basketball. He’ll be rich, but he also might not be having as much fun. You know what they say about college: it’s the best nine months of your life.
Everyone has an opinion on what Williamson should do, but there’s only one person whose take on this matters: that’s Williamson. The debate ends like this: Williamson should do whatever he wants to do, and not regret it for a second.