Every few decades a polarizing athlete takes the collegiate world by storm. From Manziel to Tebow, all the way back to Shaq, college athletic fans get engulfed in the hype of a particular athlete. So much so that these guys don’t just move the needle, they are the needle. In the year of 2019, Zion Williamson is very much that needle. The first big name out of the “Instagram Era” of high school talent, people have been waiting to see this freak athlete rock rims on the national stage since he was a sophomore in high school. Like many before him, he enrolled in Duke and has lived up to the billing all year. But, as I’m sure most of you know, the hype train almost careened off a cliff Wednesday night against North Carolina when Williamson’s shoe fall apart and twisted his knee up.
31 seconds in to the biggest game of his life. Now since then, Zion has been diagnosed with a grade A MCL strain, and is listed as day to day. While the crisis was avoided, that shouldn’t dismiss the conversations that would’ve been had if Zion’s worst fear came to fruition. This isn’t necessarily going to be about college athletes getting paid, because that debate poses more questions than answers. (However, if you cant find a fundamental flaw with people paying thousands of dollars to see Zion play, only for his NBA career to almost go up in smoke while playing in a game he received zero payment for, that’s on you). It’s more a debate of “is playing collegiate basketball as a top tier prospect worth it?” and the answer is an emphatic no.
At the very core of reasons to play college hoops, the biggest reason is to boost your draft stock. Play in a power conference, get all the nations eyes on you and show scouts what you’re all about. However, due to advancements in scouting (combined with a dash of common sense) incoming rookies aren’t graded on just their college performances on draft day anymore. There’s combines, and showcases, and individual workouts to gauge how great these guys are. The biggest example is Luka Doncic. He played zero games in the United States before Dallas gave up two first round picks to draft him, and he’s already locked up Rookie of the Year. Most of the time the college season doesn’t even impact the truly great, can’t miss prospects draft stock. Look at this years crop of freshmen; at the start of the year Zion and his Duke teammate RJ Barrett were the general consensus top two picks. Four months, and one almost life altering injury later, the same two guys sit a top most draft boards. If neither went to college and played pro ball overseas, their draft stocks would be the same, they’d just have some more money in their pockets. Scouts wanted Zion to prove he wasn’t just an athlete, that he could shoot and handle the ball as well. He’s currently second in all of college basketball shooting 68% from the field, but he couldn’t prove that playing in Madrid? He could’ve proved that in June at draft camps, yet for some reason the expected norm is he has to risk having his knee explode to make a University, that took home 25 million dollars in hoop revenue last year, more money?
I can hear people screaming “WELL, THEY NEED THE EXPERIENCE OF PLAYING IN MARCH!” or “WAIT AND SEE HOW THEY DO IN THE TOURNAMENT!” Both of those statements are equally stupid. Since 2013, only one first overall pick made it to the Final Four, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl Anthony Towns. Furthermore, in this entire decade only two number one picks have made the Final Four, Towns and Anthony Davis. Both of whom were regarded as can’t miss prospects coming out of high school. So making the tourney, and even playing well in it, means literally next to nothing come draft season. Last years number one pick DeAndre Ayton got embarrassed by Buffalo round one. Even the rest of the top ten only featured one player who made the Elite Eight (Marvin Bagley III) and one who was a National Champion (Mikal Bridges). This isn’t really a current trend either, of all the MVP’s this decade the only two to reach the Final Four are Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. So if success in the NCAA isn’t altering elite prospects draft position, what’s the point of playing?
Don’t get me wrong, tons of guys have benefited from the opportunities that college basketball provides, most notably Steph Curry. If it wasn’t for his underdog run at Davidson, he’s most likely not in the NBA. However, I’m not talking about the unnoticed guys. I’m talking about studs like Zion, Towns and Davis who’s NBA status was long solidified before taking the floor in college. Now I know some of you are saying ‘yeah, how would you know? You didn’t play hoops in college!” Fair point moron, however I know a few people who have.
Former Kentucky Wildcat and lottery pick DeMarcus Cousins thinks college basketball is a sham. A guy who went through the system, benefited of it extremely, and now has millions of dollars because of it is telling you the system is stupid. Still not enough? How about the opinion of a guy who wouldn’t be in the league if it weren’t for the opportunities given to him at the University of Washington?
Wow, another NBA All Star telling you exactly what I am! That’s just two though, surely there isn’t more right? Right?!
Last years Rookie of the Year Donovan Mitchell?! Calling for change in the college game?!
The fifth (technically third) pick in this years draft Trae Young tweeted this out the night of the injury. What follows is a Twitter exchange that perfectly defines my point.
Young sums it up perfectly. If you’re a guy who needs the exposure, needs the bright lights to showcase what you can do, by all means play in college. Zion Williamson is not one of those guys. Neither is RJ Barrett or even Cam Reddish. The worst part about this whole situation is Zion avoided the worst case scenario, however another elite prospect wasn’t so lucky earlier this year. Bol Bol, a top five prospect coming into the season, declared for Oregon last fall, deciding against the less physical style of basketball played in the Euro league. Less than ten games into the season Bol breaks his foot and won’t be back. Check any mock draft and you will not find him in the top five, some don’t feature him in the top ten. That type of drop brings with it a 6 million dollar decrease in signing on draft day.
Again, for the skeptics who think I’m just pointing out the doomsday scenarios, might I introduce you to Michael Porter Jr.? Porter would have went number one with ease in last years draft had he not played a second of college basketball. Instead he went to the University of Missouri and broke a vertebrae in his back, and hasn’t been the same since. The former guaranteed top three pick, if not the number one, fell to 14, lost millions of dollars in the process and has yet to play for Denver after requiring another back surgery. I’m not trying to make this Zion injury seem worse than it is for just shock factor, I’m trying to show how bad it could’ve been based off what we saw a year ago.
I’m not saying to cancel college basketball, I don’t even hate it. All I’m saying is college basketball gets a lot more out of it’s elite talent than the talent gets from college basketball. Zion shouldn’t have to go through this false evaluation, and risk injury in the process, to prove he’s an NBA talent. The whole world knows he is. If only there was an alternative…….
For more NBA News and takes follows us on Twitter @ViewsFromWall