This Friday night, the Duke Blue Devils, five-time winners of the NCAA men’s basketball national championship, will take the court against North Dakota State. The Devils are led by their longtime coach Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest, and probably the best, basketball coach in NCAA history. But this year the big draw won’t be Coach K, or much of anything else, really, other than an unpaid 18-year-old kid who, a year ago, was a teenager at Spartanberg Day School in South Carolina. CBS will be paying the NCAA more than one billion dollars in 2019 to broadcast the NCAA Tournament… and a disproportionate amount of that money this year is directly related to the hype surrounding Zion Williamson.
He’s a transcendent superstar who happens to find himself at the center of the existential crisis plaguing college basketball.
Williamson, the teenager multiple NBA teams are purposely losing games in order to have the opportunity to select in June’s NBA Draft, is the alpha and omega of this year’s tournament. He’s a transcendent superstar who, in addition to being one of the most incredible college basketball players anyone has ever seen, happens to find himself at the center of the existential crisis plaguing college basketball and, in a wider sense, all sports. Because while the NBA can’t wait for this kid to leave college, he doesn’t seem to be in a particular hurry himself.
The pivotal moment in Zion Williamson’s ascension from great player to relentless thinkpiece generator came last month, in a February game against hated rival North Carolina. This was an event so hyped by the network and the sports world that even Barack Obama was there. (The price for third-party tickets was more than $500.) The game was such a big deal that Nike, who has a deal with Duke, used it as an opportunity to promote a new Kyrie Irving shoe, which backfired spectacularly when the shoe exploded early in the game, causing Williamson to twist his knee and miss the next three weeks of games. (They’ve since fixed the shoe, via China, of course.)
This moment — in which an unpaid college athlete certain to make hundreds of millions of dollars in just a few months could have lost it all in front of a stadium full of rich people — turned into a referendum on college sports themselves. Many college basketball skeptics and reformers said Williamson should never play another college game — the Warriors’ DeMarcus Cousins said “college basketball is bullshit” — while the sports’ defenders (and, it’s worth noting, employees) claimed that Zion's privileged position was directly related to the promotion he'd received playing college basketball. Zion never commented and has instead worked hard to get his knee ready for the ACC Tournament, which he and Duke dominated last weekend. Now he’s primed to do the same in the big tournament. The ongoing question is whether he should.
It is, like most issues, more complicated than the people on both sides screaming at each other allow. College basketball’s defenders do themselves no favors by acting as if Zion — a genetic freak whose physical gifts are so prodigious that many believe his shoe blew out because there’s never been a 300-pound human who can move as fast as Zion can — somehow owes something to the sport itself.
College basketball’s defenders do themselves no favors by acting as if Zion somehow owes something to the sport itself.
Remember, because of the NBA’s one-and-done rule (a rule that may be repealed in the coming years), Zion Williamson essentially had no choice but to spend his freshman year playing for free before taking his talents to the NBA. There is no other non-college sports industry like this in the country. College basketball and CBS are selling ad space to the “corporate champions” of this tournament like Coca-Cola and Capital One on the backs of unpaid labor: Nike can give Coach K and Duke millions to advertise their shoes, but they’re not supposed to give a dime to the guy actually wearing them. It’s a corrupt system, top to bottom.
But acting as if Williamson has not benefitted from Duke and college basketball is short-sighted, too. Now Williamson is pretty obviously the No. 1 draft pick, but it’s worth mentioning that before the NCAA season began, Williamson wasn’t the top prospect on anyone’s draft boards. It wasn’t until he got to Duke — and started playing against a higher level of competition for one of the most famous brands in sports on ESPN twice a week — that everyone saw what he was really capable of.
Thus, Duke and college basketball have used Williamson, but he absolutely has used them as well. He has used their platform to promote himself, not just to NBA scouts but to the American public as well, a public that is now going to tune into the tournament — perhaps in record numbers — as long as Zion and his team are still in it.
That sort of publicity was never available to, say, Luka Doncic, a Slovenian guard for the Dallas Mavericks and the likely NBA Rookie of the Year this year who is a fantastic player but still mostly unknown to the general public. It has taken a full year for basketball fans to watch and learn about Doncic, and suffice it to say Barack Obama isn't going to his games. But everybody knows about Zion. And in many ways, that is the coin of the realm. You can bet that first big shoe contract he signs will be a direct result of his time at Duke, particularly his high-profile blowout against North Carolina.
Is it safer for Zion’s health to skip the rest the tournament to prepare for the draft? Maybe from a physical standpoint. But in other ways, including financially, it wouldn’t necessarily be good for him. This is obviously not an ideal scenario. In a just world, Williamson would already be getting compensated for the money he’s making for Duke, the NCAA, CBS and Capital One. But just because the situation is unjust and corrupt doesn’t mean Zion is doing himself a disservice by not quitting all together. He’s taking this unjust world for what it’s worth. He’s getting his. Good for him.