Why Zion Williamson still has something to gain by playing again for Duke

Just because Zion Williamson is already the presumptive No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft doesn’t mean he has nothing left to gain financially by playing again this college basketball season.

Sports business experts told Yahoo Sports on Thursday that the Duke star could significantly increase his endorsement potential if he returns from injury in time for the NCAA tournament and shines on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Williamson is already the No. 1 target coming out of college basketball for shoe-apparel giants this year. Spearheading a national title run during the one month when even casual fans pay attention to college basketball would only escalate the shoe-apparel bidding war for Williamson and make him more alluring to advertisers outside the realm of athletics.

“Assuming that the knee is 100 percent, he should want to get out there as fast as he can,” said Bob Dorfman, executive director of San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising. “The guy definitely is very charismatic and comfortable on camera, so he has the potential to go beyond just shoe and equipment deals. The more he’s out there to a general audience, the more popular he becomes and the more advertisers will be attracted to him.”

Whether Williamson should sit out the rest of his freshman season at Duke has been fervently debated since he suffered a freak right knee injury in the opening minute of his team’s loss to rival North Carolina on Wednesday night. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski described the injury as a mild sprain and declined to speculate when Williamson might return. He won’t play Saturday against Syracuse.

Current and former NBA players including DeMarcus Cousins, Scottie Pippen and Trae Young have each encouraged Williamson to consider shutting himself down the rest of the season no matter how quickly his injured knee heals. They suggest that Williamson follow the example of football prospects who have skipped bowl games rather than risk injuries that could damage their NFL draft stock.

Before his injury, Williamson scoffed at the idea of sitting out the rest of the season because he genuinely enjoys playing at Duke, he wants to win a national championship and he doesn’t want to let down his teammates and coaches. Should he need another reason to play once he has fully recovered from his injury, he also might want to consider the potential to further boost his brand with a brilliant month of March.

Zion Williamson reacts after falling as his shoe breaks in the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 20, 2019, in Durham, North Carolina. (Getty Images)
Zion Williamson reacts after falling as his shoe breaks in the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 20, 2019, in Durham, North Carolina. (Getty Images)

“Success in the NCAA tournament will breed more endorsement revenue for him,” said Eric Smallwood, president of the Apex Marketing Group. “He is going to make more money as a rookie if he finishes the season strong at Duke than he would as a rookie if he sits out. It would give him a launching pad. He’d have momentum transitioning from college to the pros.”

Williamson has been on the radar of advertisers since long before he finished high school. The high-flying South Carolina native arrived at Duke with nearly 2 million Instagram followers, a product of his charisma in front of a camera and his rare blend of size, agility and explosiveness.

In the six months that Williamson has spent at Duke so far, his marketing clout has only steadily increased. No one in college basketball has driven traffic or interest like the 6-foot-7, 285-pound forward with a vertical leap that practically defies measurement.

Williamson has evolved from projected lottery pick to runaway favorite to be taken No. 1 overall by averaging 22.4 points and 9.2 rebounds (entering Wednesday’s game) while displaying dazzling athleticism for his size. Now the rare college player identifiable by only his first name, he is responsible for many of the season’s most viral moments, from dunks from the foul line, to off-the-backboard alley-oop passes, to seemingly unfathomable blocked shots.

Asked if they can remember a college basketball player with more potential marketing appeal, sports business experts were left scratching their heads.

“It’s been a long while,” said Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University.

“I guess you go back to Shaq, maybe?” Dorfman said. “But more recently, I can’t think of anybody. I haven’t seen anybody have as much attention surrounding him in recent years.”

How much more popular Williamson can become prior to the NBA draft will depend on what he accomplishes in March.

If he sits out, it could temporarily halt his momentum and cause him to fall off the national radar until closer to the NBA draft. If he produces a handful of memorable moments and leads Duke deep into the NCAA tournament, it can only increase his stature and stardom.

“A really big March for him absolutely could enhance his endorsement possibilities,” Conrad said. “I would argue it could be worth seven figures, maybe eight in a long-term deal, if he leads his team to the national title, makes the key baskets, everything you could want.”

Ultimately, Williamson will have to weigh the risk of re-injury against what he’d be giving up by sitting out the rest of what presumably will be his lone season of college basketball. It would be sickening to see him get hurt again and damage his shot at NBA riches, but it’s also inaccurate to say he has nothing to gain financially by playing for Duke again.

“In the NCAA tournament, you’re getting a bigger audience and a lot more peripheral fans watching,” Dorfman said. “That just leads to more popularity and more attention. The bigger the fanbase you can build, the better long term for you.”

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