When Zion Williamson’s shoe exploded 33 seconds into Duke’s game against North Carolina on February 20, the internet exploded alongside it, and the most-watched college basketball game of the season became the latest staging ground in the debate over the NCAA’s amateurism model. Williamson, the consensus no. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, is not paid a salary to play for the Blue Devils, and his injury, later diagnosed as a right knee sprain, was further proof of how the NCAA exploits athletes. Many argued that even once he’s healthy, Williamson should shut it down for the rest of the season and focus on his professional future. Never mind that it’s the NBA’s age limit that prevents Williamson from already being in the league and that he’s benefited greatly from his time in Durham. He wasn’t supposed to be Duke’s best player when he arrived on campus and has since transformed into a national phenomenon, thanks in no small part to the exposure of playing for college basketball’s most recognizable brand and head coach Mike Krzyzewski. It’s as though every second Williamson spends outside of a hyperbaric chamber between now and the draft jeopardizes his NBA earning potential.
Williamson has missed the Blue Devils’ past two games, and there’s no timetable for his return, though Krzyzewski said he expects him back at some point. The discussions about whether Williamson should play or sit out the rest of the season have made my brain numb, and not solely because I am a college basketball fan who cannot fathom the prospect of the best player in the country not playing if he’s able. Rather, it feels remarkably selfish for so many to chastise the NCAA for not caring about its student-athletes while also calling for an 18-year-old to sit out games even if he’s healthy enough to play. Hopefully, the NCAA will one day relax its stance on amateurism, but it’s not going to come because of the actions of any one player, no matter how talented and marketable he may be. Compensating student-athletes beyond the value of their scholarship runs counter to the fundamental tenets of the NCAA, a fact that won’t change because of an exploding shoe.
More to the point, asking Williamson to take such a stand is unwise if for no other reason than it seems pretty unlikely that he would voluntarily sit out if he’s 100 percent healthy, especially when his team is the favorite to win the NCAA tournament. Watch Williamson play for five minutes, and it’s impossible to miss his childlike zeal for the game, his competitive drive, and the bond he has with his teammates. Despite those things, Williamson could still ultimately decide that preserving his draft stock is his smartest move. Maybe he ends up having lingering discomfort in his right knee by the time the tournament rolls around. Maybe he develops the yips in practice and becomes scared to plant his foot for fear of his shoe ripping in half again. Maybe the decision to shut him down ultimately comes from Duke and not Williamson himself. In the Blue Devils’ first game without Williamson, Krzyzewski burned the redshirt of freshman Joey Baker, a decision that seems shortsighted if Williamson is only expected to miss a handful of games. Nobody can say with any certainty what’s going to happen over the next few weeks, and there’s so much more to this situation than answering the question: “Does Zion want to play?”
If Williamson’s college basketball career is over—and I can’t stress enough how much I want and expect him to return—then it’s time to pause and reflect on all that he’s done in a Duke uniform. Make no mistake: The 2018-19 basketball season has been the Year of Zion, and not just at the college level. NBA television ratings have declined; perhaps the public is bored by the inevitability of another Warriors title, or maybe LeBron James’s move to the West Coast is a factor. The college season has also been uninspiring. The Pac-12 is having one of its worst seasons ever, historical blue bloods like Indiana and UCLA are complete jokes, and traditional contenders like Kansas and Villanova are shells of their former selves. While North Carolina and Kentucky have been rounding into form, it’s understandable why a casual observer might have counted them both out based on their play up until mid-January. And to top it all off, this year’s crop of draft prospects isn’t exactly a gold mine—everyone seems most excited about Duke players or Ja Morant (who plays for Murray State, a small school whose games are lucky even to be broadcast on The Ocho once every two months).
The coverage of Williamson and Duke can get pretty absurd at times, but it’s hard to find a player or team nearly as exciting. (Gonzaga and Virginia are every bit the national title contender that Duke is, sure, but their stories will be determined by how they perform in the NCAA tournament.) For NBA fans, Williamson represents the future, and the mystery as to which team will have the opportunity to draft him is every bit as intriguing as trying to determine how many Finals games the Warriors will need to clinch another title. For college fans, Williamson is an incomparable marvel who has it all—the skill, the power, the passion, the coach, the program, the haircut, the body, the smile, the highlight reel, the teammates, the charisma. Shoot, even his name is perfect. If his name was Todd Johnson instead of Zion Williamson, he’d be 1 percent less interesting. But it’s not, because it would be preposterous for a man that unique to be named Todd Johnson.
The truth is, there has never been a college basketball player like Williamson. Yes, we said the same thing about Oklahoma’s Trae Young last year, and LSU’s Ben Simmons two years before that, and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Texas’s Kevin Durant in the years before them. We’ve felt that way about a lot of guys. As it turns out, the NBA’s mandating that players must wait a year after high school before entering the league has led to a bunch of transcendent players in college basketball. It just sucks that we’ve gotten to a point where each time one of these guys comes along, a cloud of negativity inevitably follows. We can’t appreciate them for what they are. We have to critique their every move. We have to question why their team doesn’t win every game. We have to discuss how we think their games will translate to the next level. We have to question whether they truly want to be in college and whether it’s a problem if they don’t. We have to use them as a pawn in whatever agenda we have for or against the NCAA. We chew them up and spit them out and then look to the next batch of freshmen to figure out who we can use to run the whole thing back again, and at no point do we ever stop to think, “Goddamn, this guy is a hell of a college basketball player.”
Williamson was on his way to changing those attitudes. He was the first one-and-done player since Davis that not only captivated the entire nation but evoked a sense of undeniable wonder and joy. Sure, you could debate with your friends about whether Williamson will dominate in the NBA. But why waste your time talking about a hypothetical future when you could instead talk about that dunk or that block or that picture of him doing something so insane that your brain can’t process any reality in which the image isn’t doctored? Zion had reached a point where all of America had rallied behind him and admired what he brought to the game every time he stepped on the floor, which is why so many people tuned in to see him play against North Carolina. And then his shoe exploded, the floodgates opened, and now we’re right back in the familiar position of treating a transcendent freshman like nothing more than a springboard for our agendas, instead of just appreciating that there’s an 18-year-old at Duke who can do incredible things on a basketball court.
If we’ve seen the last of Williamson in a Duke uniform, I certainly hope the past week or so doesn’t define his college legacy. I’m not sure I can handle remembering him as the player whose national title hopes were dashed by a cheaply made pair of Nikes. I’m not sure I can handle him being the face of the movement to end one-and-done (and I say that as someone who is as happy as anyone that the NBA is working toward getting rid of the rule). Isn’t Williamson’s year at Duke exactly what the NBA had in mind when it instituted the rule? Coming out of high school, he was a supreme athlete who was thought to be a little raw, which is another way of saying he was the exact type of prospect that NBA general managers were getting burned on before one-and-done went into effect. At Duke, he answered every question that scouts had about his game. He became a national sensation and practiced dealing with intense media scrutiny while being protected by an environment that Duke could control. And he gained some life experience through living on his own for the first time. He seemed to enjoy his college experience, never once complaining publicly about being forced to go to Duke, or how the NCAA was exploiting him. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not sure how anyone could look at Williamson’s year in Durham and think, “That’s a perfect example of everything wrong with the one-and-done rule, and we have to make sure that never happens again.”
I’m desperate to see Williamson return to the court for Duke because he deserves to write his own ending to his college career. He spent all year building his reputation and becoming must-see television only to have the story of his magical season hijacked by people who never really cared about him, his team, or college basketball before his shoe split apart. He might decide that it’s not worth the risk of further injury, and that would be fine, too. It’s his choice. It’s unfair for anyone to suggest what Williamson should or should not do. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that it ever got to this point in the first place—shame on anyone who contributed to putting this man on a pedestal made of impossible expectations.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pray that the college basketball gods can heal our savior’s knee and deliver him back to us before the NCAA tournament because they might as well not even play the thing if he can’t be a part of it.