When Zion Williamson slipped in the opening minute of Duke’s game against North Carolina, exploding his sneaker and suffering a right knee sprain, the sound reverberated through the NBA.
When the player who has been a consensus choice as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft went to the floor holding his knee, it wasn’t just about the injury and the game but also what it means when the rules don’t allow a player such as Williamson to head straight to the NBA, instead opting for a year of college — and risking his future; a path that can blow up as quickly as Williamson’s Nike sneaker did.
Williamson on Thursday was diagnosed with a Grade 1 right knee sprain, according to Duke’s Twitter account. His status is currently day-to-day.
NBA players were quick to comment, including Dennis Smith Jr., a former ACC player from N.C. State University who was drafted ninth overall by the Mavericks and now plays for the New York Knicks.
“I think they should be able to come out of high school, especially a guy like that who really doesn’t need college,” said Smith, who also suffered a knee injury when he was in high school. “It’s just a stepping stone for him. Baseball players are allowed to go straight out of high school. I don’t really see the difference.”
The NBA has wrestled with this question for years, at one time allowing players to jump straight to the league from high school, then putting limitations of a year after his high school graduating class. Even now they have begun to tinker with the restrictions, utilizing the G League beginning next season as a path for elite prospects who are at least 18 years old, and they will be paid $125,000 for the five-month season.
But a player such as Williamson was the top prospect out of high school and could possibly have been the No. 1 pick. If he came to the NBA last summer, it would have been with a physique already beyond that of most professionals at 6-7 and 285 pounds.
Current Golden State Warrior DeMarcus Cousins also had some choice words for the NCAA regarding Zion and players coming out of high school.
“My advice to him is do what’s best for you and your family,” Cousins told reporters. “Obviously college isn’t. It does nothing for you at this point. You’ve proven you’re the No. 1 pick coming out and proven your talent. You’re ready for the next level. That’s my opinion, knowing what I know now.
“I loved my experience in college. That was some of the best years of my life, playing basketball. But with that being said, just how crooked the NCAA business is. I actually saw a post the other day where the highest ticket for that UNC-Duke game was $2,500, $3,500. How much does Zion Williamson receive? That’s who they’re coming to see. How much of that is he getting? Actually, who does it go to? How does it benefit any player on that team? But if they’re able to get $20 and a free meal, they’re a bad kid, they get a bad rep, uncoachable, thugs, whatever the case may be.”
There are players all over the league who have been presented with that opportunity and took varying paths to the NBA. But you’ve got an 18-year-old who’s capable, and it’s hard to tell him he can’t go out and earn a living. Perhaps the “safety net” for the kids will be the hardest part to figure out.
Now, the question is “Should Zion sit out the rest of the season?” Why risk further injury — and the millions of dollars that could be potentially be lost — to stick around for the next couple of months in Durham?
I don’t know Williamson personally, but I get the feeling that he is the ultimate competitor and will want to finish what he started — winning a national championship in his one and only season. Duke teammate R.J. Barrett said Williamson is the energy that the rest of the team feeds off of so I would imagine he won’t want to let his fellow players down.
But that doesn’t mean the next phenom won’t.