Zion throws down a dunk. courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Zion should not need a year in college

Editor-in-Chief Justin Guglielmetti discusses why the “one-and-done” rule needs to go in light of the Duke forward’s recent knee injury.

It’s been two weeks since The Busted Shoe Heard ’Round the World, and despite initial reports that the resulting knee injury was just a minor sprain, we have yet to see Zion Williamson return to action. I don’t think this is some conspiracy intended to hide the fact that the best college prospect in at least a decade is now damaged goods; it’s much more likely that Duke is taking the prudent course and progressing slowly so as not to aggravate the injury. But this whole saga has thrown into stark relief a major problem with basketball that has been evident for a while now: if you are good enough to be in the NBA, you should be allowed to play in it.

DeMarcus Cousins said it best when he was asked about the one-and-done rule in an interview shortly after Shoegate: “Knowing what I know now, college basketball is bullshit.” Tell’em Boogie!

Cousins had a lot to say about the inequities present in the current NCAA model, some of which applied directly to top prospects like Zion and the rest to the thousands of student athletes who will never go pro in their respective sports. His latter point is one brought up seemingly every few months by the sports media: players are essentially exploited by their schools. He’s right that institutions shouldn’t get to profit millions off the work of these hard-working athletes while calling an often extremely unsatisfactory, supposedly free education fair recompense. But that debate, though certainly the more far reaching and important one, has been rehashed ad infinitum and is separate from the main issue in Zion’s case. I’d like to focus instead on the question of why someone like him should even be in college at all.

The NBA is a meritocracy, reserved for the very best 400-odd basketball players on Earth. Zion Williamson is a laughably obvious member of that exclusive group. He’s 6’7” and listed at 285 pounds, with a vertical leap in excess of 40 inches, which means that at just 18 years old, he would already be the most imposing physical presence in the league. Not merely an athletic freak of nature, Zion has exhibited a guard’s handle and far superior passing and defensive instincts than his doubters projected coming out of high school. If you plucked him off the Blue Devils and assigned him to an NBA roster right now (disregarding the injury of course), you’d be talking about a top-20 player in the league. And that’s to say nothing of his ultimate potential, which is a multi-time MVP and Hall of Famer.

Knowing all that, does it make any sense that Zion should be forced to wait a year coming out of high school to play basketball at the highest level? I honestly can’t think of a single benefit. “Honing his abilities” is a cop-out answer applied to many top prospects, especially given their NBA-ready talent and the backwards notion that it is better to learn the college game than the vastly superior pro one.
Tradition is a crap excuse, not only because doing things the way you’ve always done them is the definition of a bad argument, but because this “tradition” before the one-and-done era didn’t involve players jumping ship after a single season. And while I can understand wanting to experience the fun and celebrity that would come with being a star at a big sports school, there would be even more of those things (and fewer restrictions) as a pro athlete. The only difference is he would be getting paid.

Herein lies the hypocrisy of talking heads going off about “love of the game” and decrying the idea that it would be better for Zion to sit out the rest of the season. It’s true that injuries are a part of sports, a risk that every athlete knowingly assumes when he suits up. But when there are millions of dollars on the line — money that could ensure you and your family’s security for their entire lives — it simply does not make sense to take unnecessary risks.

In an ideal world, Zion wouldn’t have to make the choice between letting his teammates down and defying his hypercompetitive nature or putting his future on the line. The fame and fortune that accompanies signing an NBA contract should already be his, if not for an arbitrary restriction designed only to benefit others.

You might be inclined to say “tough shit,” which means you’re also likely one of those curmudgeons who likes to espouse that art should be given away for free, that teachers and doctors and firefighters should be the celebrities, that actors, musicians and athletes are spoiled brats who should just be happy that they’re doing something fun for a living. I get it. It’s hard to feel bad for a man who has it all, especially when in his case and in the overwhelming majority of others, things turn out fine.

I just ask that you think about this issue on principle. How would you feel if you had the ability and means become a multimillionaire, and meanwhile, some outside force that doesn’t care about your wellbeing decided to swoop in and make you their dancing monkey for a year?

Nothing is certain in life, especially not health and financial security. Let’s give Zion Williamson and his like their due.

Post Author: Justin Guglielmetti