March 25, 2019

Zion Williamson shows how one-and-done can benefit colleges and NBA

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CHARLOTTE — At some point around 11 p.m. Central time on April 8, confetti will fall from the rafters at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, a national championship trophy will be lifted and “One Shining Moment” will play on the scoreboard, just as it always does. 

But no matter which team winds up writing its name in the NCAA record books three weeks from now, ownership of the 2018-19 season has already been decided.

The Year of Zion began with skepticism over whether he was more than an Instagram sensation, turned into something different entirely when he exploded for 28 points against Kentucky in Duke’s first game of the season and became a runaway train of media content by February when LeBron James and former President Barack Obama were flying in to see him play.

In some ways, how Zion Williamson’s one-and-done year at Duke ends hardly matters, although Saturday night’s 73-63 victory here over Florida State in the ACC tournament championship game stamps his team as the national title favorites. 

Because while everyone agrees that Williamson’s presence has been good for college basketball — television ratings are up, social media is filled with his highlights and he’s driven ticket demand through the roof — he is churning through the amateurism machine at a time when the NCAA’s leadership is actively trying to ensure someone like Williamson never plays college basketball in the first place. 

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“I think it can help at times from a visibility standpoint, from a business standpoint and so forth,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said, acknowledging that having Williamson at Duke has added value to his league. “It doesn’t change my mind on how I feel about the one-and-done, that it’s not something that’s positive for college basketball.”

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But after watching Williamson lift a niche regular season to mainstream viewing at a time when college basketball had largely fallen out of the national consciousness from November through February, the question I have is why?

Though the so-called one-and-done rule that prohibits players from entering the NBA draft until they’ve been out of high school for a year was not the NCAA’s doing and isn’t the NCAA’s to undo, there is now near-unanimity among the people that matter that it needs to go, with NBA commissioner Adam Silver chief among them. 

When that will happen isn’t completely certain because it will require the NBA and the National Basketball Players’ Association to agree on how it will be implemented, and certain sticking points like how much medical information players are required to submit to teams and combine attendance need to be hammered out. No matter what, the 2022 draft would be the earliest high school players could go directly to the NBA. 

Which, if that’s what the NBA truly wants to do, is fine — albeit not altogether great for their business either. The problem isn’t a truly elite prospect like Williamson, who probably shouldn’t have go to college if he doesn’t want to, but the next tier of guys where teams take on significantly more risk by using a high pick on an 18-year-old whose game and mental maturity haven’t been adequately tested. 

All in all, having a one-and-done rule has been better for the NBA product, delivering more refined prospects to the league and exponentially more buzz around its top draft picks. Likewise, it’s been better for the college product, delivering star power and relevance. So why, again, is everyone in such a hurry to do away with it? 

For all the feigned outrage from the stuffed shirts in Indianapolis about what a mockery it was for Anthony Davis or Derrick Rose to call themselves college students for eight months, the reality of the situation is that no other sports organization on earth would say, “We don’t want you” to the most talented people eligible to play under of their banner. 

And the NCAA has even taken it a step further since the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, all but turning the one-and-done rule into a scapegoat for a long tradition of black market transactions that went on for decades before one-and-dones were even a thing and will continue to be part of the college basketball underworld as long as there is money to be made from the acquisition of talent.

Swofford, of course, doesn’t see it that way. He’d rather go back to the way it was in the 1990s and early 2000s when Tracy McGrady and LeBron James never really considered college basketball, even as he is experiencing in real time the kind of sensation one of those types of players can create for his product. 

Thus, doesn’t it stand to reason that Duke, the ACC and college basketball as a whole would have been worse off if Williamson had never come to college?

“It’s almost an unfair question because we’ve had Zion,” Swofford said. “You ask me that about Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, who were never in college basketball, I don’t think you really miss something you never have. So if they’re not here, I don’t think it hurts.”

But the biggest difference between 2019 and 1999 is that basketball stars are no longer anonymous when they’re 16 or 17 years old. Internet outlets cover AAU tournaments like traditional media covers the NCAA tournament, big sneaker circuit games are televised and top players can get hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram if a few dunks go viral. 

If the NCAA doesn’t want to make the necessary compromises to accommodate that market for the best 20 or 30 high school players, they will go somewhere else — perhaps to the NBA’s G-League — which would leave college basketball with the worst of all worlds. 

Not only would the NCAA be missing out on the most talented players, but one-and-done would still exist in the sense that the best freshmen who do play college basketball would still be able to make the jump after just one year. 

So what’s the point of trying to shove them out of your system in the first place?

“Why would I pass up on this experience?” Williamson said Friday night after Duke beat North Carolina in the ACC semifinals. “Playing the biggest rivalry ever, you can’t create moments like that nowhere else. That’s why I say even if they had the high school rule, I’d have still come to college.”

Maybe that’s true, maybe not. We’ll never know for sure because Williamson didn’t have that choice. But after seeing the way he’s lifted the entire sport this season — and will continue to do so as long as Duke plays in the NCAA tournament — the idea college basketball wouldn’t want the next Williamson to be part of it should strike everyone involved as idiotic. 

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