With Duke’s exit in the regional finals of the 2019 NCAA Tournament over the weekend, the Zion Williamson era of college basketball has likely come to a close.
Unless something drastic happens between now and June’s NBA Draft, Williamson will join the legion of college basketball one-and-done players that have created so much controversy about the sport.
Many would like to see the NBA change the rule that created the dynamic in the first place and allow 18-year-olds to enter the draft. That thought has been echoed by many across college basketball, including ACC commissioner John Swofford.
“I think getting rid of one and done is better than having it,” Swofford said at ACC media day in October.
But that would mean no more Williamson’s, and that should be the last thing college basketball wants.
From the time the season kicked off, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound, freakishly good athlete has been at the top of the headlines, whatever he did, and regardless of who wins at the Final Four next week, his play will be the one thing most people remember about this season.
So why would the NCAA and others in charge of college basketball want to avoid having the next Williamson play collegiately?
They don’t want to because it’s more convenient to allow the sport to slightly fade from relevance than it is to stand up an enact real, meaningful change.
Some say that the one-and-done rule punishes athletes by making them go to college for a season. But it’s not as if Williamson didn’t benefit from his season at Duke.
He was the consensus No. 7 player in the 2018 recruiting class, according to 247 Sports’ composite figure. The NBA rookie scale for the 2019 draft has not yet been released, but in 2018, No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton’s max contract value was $40.4 million over four years, while No. 7 pick Wendell Carter’s first four years were worth a max of $22 million.
That’s a huge chunk of change that Williamson — now widely projected as the top pick in the draft — earned himself at Duke. But he could have earned much more.
ESPN recently projected that Williamson could sign a shoe deal worth as much as the $87 million deal LeBron James signed with Nike as a rookie.
In that story, Trafford native and longtime sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro said he thought the bidding war for Williamson will be the biggest in his lifetime.
But there’s no reason that bidding needed to wait until after Williamson’s college career ended.
If the NCAA lifted its restriction on athletes being able to profit from their likeness, Williamson could have been negotiating with Nike as a high school player.
The ability to earn money on their likeness is a right that morally, I believe collegiate athletes should hold. But setting the moral conundrum aside, it’s just good business for the NCAA.
The NCAA should want to get the dirty money out of college sports and improve its reputation. It should also want to have the very best athletes play for its member institutions. That means making college basketball more accessible to the next Williamson, and not hoping the NBA gives them a free pass to the pros.
Change is hard and for those that have spent their careers lining their pockets with millions on the athletic contributions of unpaid student athletes, giving an inch is probably a scary proposition.
But it’s the right move morally, the best for the sport and smart business. The NCAA doesn’t always get the first two right, but the organization has become a behemoth by doing what’s best for business.
It’s time they focused on finding a way to keep the best basketball players in college as long as possible.