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What If Zion Williamson Doesn’t Want to Play for the Pelicans?

It may seem far-fetched, but in today’s NBA nothing is impossible. As the most coveted prospect to hit the league since disgruntled New Orleans star Anthony Davis, Williamson has unprecedented player power. Would he use it?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As much as draft lottery balls decide the fortunes of NBA franchises, the top amateur basketball players dangle even more precariously over the cauldron of fate. If Zion Williamson didn’t appreciate that fact 24 hours ago, he certainly does now. After months of buzz about the presumptive no. 1 overall pick landing with the Knicks—buzz made all the more bizarre by the fact that the Knicks had only about one chance in seven to land the top pick—the New Orleans Pelicans literally won the lottery.

Getting to spend one’s 20s living in New Orleans and not working for James Dolan’s cabal of snakebitten incompetents might seem like a lucky bounce, but we don’t know for sure how Williamson himself feels about it. The Duke forward ducked out of the lottery proceedings immediately after the results were announced. He has not, as of Wednesday afternoon, posted about the lottery on social media, and he will not attend media availability at the draft combine. The NBA exists in a whirlwind of rumors, innuendo, and attempts at telepathy, so Williamson’s radio silence comes off as displeasure.

With the actual draft five weeks out, Williamson has plenty of time to come to terms with not playing in New York, if that’s actually what his elusiveness indicates. The cool-headed thing to do would be to wait and see, but the Pelicans are already spending their offseason trying to figure out what to do with Anthony Davis, with the Knicks as a potential trade suitor. The Knicks themselves are expected to pursue not only Davis but free agents like Kevin Durant, who might leave the juggernaut Warriors. The Warriors’ stranglehold on the West might weaken anyway if Kawhi Leonard, who sat out most of 2017-18 to force a trade out of San Antonio, and ended up being traded to another city he wasn’t keen on, goes back out west as a free agent. There is, in short, no place for cool heads in this discourse.

So in the absence of hard information, let’s consider the possibility that Williamson is not only unhappy with how the lottery shook out, but so unhappy that he’d be willing to take some extraordinary actions to end up playing where he wants.

The draft itself is less about maintaining competitive balance than it is exercising control over young players and depressing salaries by eliminating the free labor market. But just because the system stacked the deck against Zion doesn’t mean he has to play the hand he’s dealt. His celebrity, talent, and status as the star of this draft class give him the leverage to choose his destination, draft be damned, if he were so inclined.

MLB draftees do this all the time; baseball teams draft players not only based on need and talent, but what’s called signability. Teams go into the draft knowing how much bonus money each prospect would want in order to sign, and if a player’s demands exceed what the team is willing to spend, he falls in the draft until someone is willing to pay him. If nobody’s willing to ante up, the player goes back to school and tries again in the next year’s draft. It’s not just acceptable for players to jockey for draft position in this fashion, it’s routine.

Look at how the 2012 draft shook out. That year two top prospects, Stanford pitcher Mark Appel and high school outfielder Byron Buxton, priced themselves above what the Astros, who had the no. 1 pick, were willing to pay. Buxton got his $6 million bonus from the Twins, who picked second, while Appel fell to the Pirates at no. 8 overall, didn’t sign, and went back to school. The Astros, meanwhile, chose a cheaper prospect, Carlos Correa, first overall, and used the difference between his signing bonus and Buxton’s (about $1.5 million) to sign Lance McCullers Jr., who fell to the 41st pick after threatening to go to the University of Florida rather than turn pro if the team that drafted him didn’t meet his demands.

The NBA locks draft picks into a rigid salary structure, so money isn’t the issue so much as location. But Zion could tell the Pelicans not to draft him, or to send him to a team of his choosing. There are notable precedents for this throughout North American sports. Eli Manning threatened to refuse to report to the San Diego Chargers, who drafted him no. 1 overall in 2004, so the Chargers traded him to the Giants on draft day. In 1983, John Elway threatened to play professional baseball rather than report to the Baltimore Colts, who traded him to Denver less than two weeks after taking him first overall.

But what if New Orleans were to call this theoretical bluff? There’s precedent for that too. In 1991, the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL spent the first overall pick on the Zion-like Eric Lindros. Lindros had no intention of playing in such a remote market, and held out. Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut was so set on building his team around Lindros that he refused to trade him. Lindros spent the 1991-92 season playing another year of junior hockey, with a brief stint on the Canadian Olympic team. Aubut eventually relented and traded Lindros to the Philadelphia Flyers.

In 1989, Danny Ferry, who like Williamson was a top forward prospect out of Duke, spent a year playing in Italy instead of suiting up for the Clippers. While he was abroad, the Clippers traded his rights to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Ferry came back to the United States in 1990.

The key to a holdout—any standoff, really—is leverage. Whoever can afford to lose less blinks first. Professional sports, and indeed most labor structures under capitalism, are set up so that the employer has the most power. If the Pelicans draft Williamson and he refuses to suit up, they can still field a team, while Williamson himself would have no means of drawing an NBA paycheck.

But he does have other options. Williamson is eligible for the NBA draft, but he hasn’t officially declared. He could withdraw from the draft by May 29, return to Duke for his sophomore season, and try again next year. If Williamson were to withdraw from the draft, he could also play professionally overseas and be drafted by a different team in 2020. Or he could go through the draft process and spend a year or more tearing up, say, the Adriatic League until the Pelicans traded him.

Williamson not only has the talent and notoriety to become an instant star in the NBA, he’s head and shoulders above his fellow draft prospects. The Pelicans, meanwhile, are still trying to figure out what to do with their last no. 1 pick, Anthony Davis, who’s entering the last year of his contract. Maybe a star like Williamson would be enough to convince Davis to re-sign. If not, the kind of Davis trade the Pelicans make would depend on the kind of team they intend to build—specifically, whether they can count on Zion as a centerpiece. Moreover, they have a new GM, former Cleveland boss David Griffin, and play in a market that might not be 100 percent viable for an NBA team. The Pelicans, if nothing else, need to know where they stand with their next franchise player, and can’t afford to wait him out. In short, the Pelicans need Zion more than he needs them.

There’s a good chance all of this conjecture will turn out to be just that, and come June 20, Zion will be shaking Adam Silver’s hand wearing a big grin and a Pelicans cap. But even with the constraints of the draft, that will come to pass only if Zion Williamson chooses to follow that path. It’s not every day an amateur athlete has this much leverage, and he should take full advantage of the fact that he can determine his own fate, even if he ultimately chooses the future that fate has handed him.