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As the presumptive No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft writhed on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor grabbing his right knee Wednesday night, the sickening sight raised a pair of momentous questions.
Was that the last we’ll see of Zion Williamson in college basketball? And should Duke’s prized freshman have been playing at all against North Carolina given that college athletes aren’t paid a salary and his draft stock is already secure?
Williamson suffered what Duke is calling a “mild knee sprain” on a bizarre play 33 seconds into top-ranked Blue Devils’ lopsided 88-72 loss to their biggest rival. When the 6-foot-7, 285-pound forward’s left foot slipped as he planted it just inside the top of the key, that foot ripped clean through his Nike basketball shoe and his right knee buckled underneath him.
It won’t be clear how much time Williamson will miss until after he undergoes further testing, but there were some encouraging signs.
Williamson limped from Duke’s bench to the locker room without assistance after a team doctor examined the knee for several minutes. Though Duke announced late in the first half that he would not return to the game, ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor reported that Williamson was seen jogging in the hallways to test the knee.
“We’re very concerned about Zion,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “It’s a mild knee sprain. We will know about length of time tomorrow. It’s stable.”
Williamson’s injury highlights the fundamental flaws in a sport that requires NBA-ready talent to attend college for a year before earning big money.
It’s not fair that NBA rules prevented Williamson from entering the draft after he graduated from high school. It’s even more egregious that NCAA amateurism rules prevent Williamson from receiving more than tuition, room and board this season when his presence at Duke is inflating TV ratings, ticket revenue and overall interest in college basketball.
Former president Barack Obama’s presence in the stands at Wednesday’s game was as much a testament to the magnetism of Williamson as the allure of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. In recent weeks, Jay-Z, LeBron James and Floyd Mayweather have also traveled to ACC country to catch a firsthand glimpse of Williamson’s thunderous dunks and high-flying blocks.
The soaring price of tickets to Duke games this season is also a sign of how big a draw Williamson has become. On Wednesday morning, the cheapest tickets to North Carolina’s lone visit of the season to Durham were selling for more than $3,000 apiece and floor seats were going for Super Bowl-level prices.
But just because the college system doesn’t allow Williamson to sufficiently cash in on his popularity doesn’t mean the 18-year-old’s debut season at Duke hasn’t massively benefited him.
Williamson wasn’t the consensus No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft before the season began. Scouts only anointed him the best prospect since Anthony Davis after he averaged 22.4 points and 9.2 rebounds while displaying dazzling athleticism and agility at his size.
Williamson also wasn’t as marketable four months ago as he is today. He arrived at Duke with a massive Instagram following thanks to his YouTube-worthy dunks in high school, but now he is more familiar to a wider audience thanks to his exploits at one of college basketball’s most visible programs.
In the midst of Williamson’s rise last month, NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen opined that Williamson should sit out the rest of his lone season at Duke rather than risk an injury that could damage his draft stock. Pippen wanted Williamson to follow the example of Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and other football players who have skipped bowl games to ensure they remain healthy.
Informed of Pippen’s advice, Williamson scoffed at the notion.
“I can’t just stop playing,” Williamson said after Duke’s first of two victories over Virginia this season. “I’d be letting my teammates down. I’d be letting Coach K down. I’d be letting a lot of people down.
“If I was going to sit out, I wouldn’t have gone to college.”
At that time, Williamson’s stance seemed reasonable. Yes, there was an injury risk, but college basketball’s stretch run isn’t the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl. He has a chance to win a national title, leave a lasting legacy and further elevate his clout in the eyes of corporations who might hire him to endorse their products.
Now Williamson must be more cautious. He owes it to himself to protect his earning power.
Williamson’s last appearance in a Duke jersey doesn’t have to be limping to the locker room, but he shouldn’t play until he’s certain his knee has healed and there’s no risk of re-injury.
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