DURHAM, N.C. — There are injuries that alter games, and then there are injuries that alter lives.
Thankfully, Zion Williamson’s heart-stopping slip Wednesday night, mere seconds into Duke’s 88-72 loss to North Carolina, appears to be the former. The star freshman was diagnosed with a Grade 1 sprain of his right knee after his Nike sneaker blew out and is considered day-to-day, Duke announced Thursday. The projected top pick in June’s draft seems to have dodged the worst-case scenario.
Even so, the image of Williamson down on the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium, clutching his knee just four months before a potential multimillion-dollar NBA payday, should prompt renewed scrutiny of the NBA’s age limit.
By the terms of the NBA’s one-and-done rule, the highflying 18-year-old forward was ineligible to enter the 2018 NBA draft out of Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina. Williamson is delighting crowds at Duke because it’s a better and more pragmatic option than launching a professional career overseas but also because he didn’t have the opportunity to enter the NBA.
To be clear, the NBA can’t wait to have him. At All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, everyone from rookie of the year favorite Luka Doncic, to slam-dunk contest champion Hamidou Diallo, to the superstars who headlined the Sunday showcase, to TNT’s Hall of Fame commentators, couldn’t stop talking about Williamson. They’re hardly anomalies. Tickets to Wednesday night’s ACC rivalry game, with Williamson as the headliner, fetched more than $3,000 on secondary sites. Former president Barack Obama and filmmaker Spike Lee made the trip to Durham, N.C., to catch the Zion show, as did Chicago Bulls General Manager Gar Forman and numerous other NBA front-office personnel.
One high-ranking executive on a 2018 lottery team said that Williamson is “absolutely” capable of being an NBA difference-maker right now. “If he didn’t have to go to Duke and we had drafted him [last June],” the executive said, “Zion would have added seven to 10 wins to our team this season. He’s that good at creating offense for himself and everyone around him.”
Meanwhile, one member of a lottery-bound team’s coaching staff said he would take Williamson over Doncic without hesitation. The Slovenian sensation needs to have the ball to be successful, he argued, and lacks versatility on the defensive end. Conversely, Williamson can function well on or off the ball on offense while possessing a much higher defensive ceiling. “If Luka’s best-case is James Harden, Zion’s is Giannis Antetokounmpo,” the coach said.
These rave reviews are no doubt influenced by Williamson’s incredible freshman season at Duke. He didn’t enter the season as the top pick in the 2019 class, and he almost certainly wouldn’t have been the first player selected if he had been eligible in 2018. Listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson has a body and game that defy comparison — and his extraordinary physique was initially met with some degree of skepticism.
But Williamson has rocketed up draft boards by averaging 22.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game while leading the NCAA in Player Efficiency Rating and Box Plus Minus. ESPN’s statistical model views Williamson as the best college prospect since Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in 2012, and a huge part of the excitement around Williamson, and the panic around his injury, centers on his rare athletic tools.
He’s heavier than most NBA centers yet is light on his feet and an effortless jumper. He’s taller than most guards, yet numerous league executives think he will be best used as a lead playmaker. He’s more physically gifted than everyone at the college level, yet he has a knack for making hustle plays and rarely coasts. In Charlotte, he was likened by talking heads and talent evaluators to LeBron James, Antetokounmpo, Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson — an impressive collection of imposing forwards that underscores how many different directions his game could evolve.
James welcomed the comparisons, and praised Williamson’s “incredible” size, speed, agility and quickness. In a sign that Williamson has established himself as more than just a highlight factory, James took care to emphasize Williamson’s “humble” appreciation for the game and his deft handling of the media. “I’ve never met him,” said James, who sat courtside at a Duke game this month. “But I love everything about him.”
Stephen Curry, meanwhile, couldn’t stop raving about Williamson’s motor. “He plays hard every possession,” the two-time NBA MVP said. “That’s a very underrated skill that kids can emulate. That’s the thing that will help him be successful when he gets to the league.”
Of course, that skill could be helping Williamson earn more than $5 million in guaranteed salary this season, plus millions more in a sneaker deal and other endorsements, if he could have declared for the draft. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has floated changing the age limit for years and said he was “ready” to reduce the league’s age limit to 18 last summer. After Williamson’s injury, a report surfaced that the NBA has recently broached the issue with the National Basketball Players Association, but a formal change has yet to be enacted.
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell wrote on Twitter: “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.”
Other NBA figures, such as Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen and Denver Nuggets guard Isaiah Thomas, have argued that Williamson should sit out the rest of the season to avoid an injury that could harm his earning potential.
By all accounts, though, Williamson is thoroughly enjoying himself at Duke. Before his injury, Williamson gleefully high-fived members of the Cameron Crazies, danced on the court during pregame warmups and went viral for pounding a vicious dunk during Duke’s layup line. He’s formed close bonds with fellow freshman standouts RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he was hoping for Williamson to return “in the near future.”
For those reasons, Williamson shouldn’t necessarily be held up as the poster child for NCAA exploitation. He might not have wanted to make the leap from high school to the NBA, and he might have genuinely craved the exceptional experience that Duke has to offer.
But his injury, and his brush with a horrendous alternate outcome, should refocus the spotlight on the NBA’s age limit. Whether Williamson wanted to go from the preps to the pros, he should have had the choice.
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