GREENBURGH, N.Y. — When Zion Williamson slipped in the opening minute of Duke’s game against North Carolina on Wednesday night, exploding his sneaker and suffering a right knee sprain, the sound reverberated through the NBA.
When the player who has been the consensus choice as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft went to the floor holding his knee, it wasn’t just about the injury and the game. It also was about what it means when the rules don’t allow a player such as Williamson to head straight to the NBA, leaving him to play a year of college ball and risking his future, a path that can blow up as quickly as Williamson’s Nike sneaker did.
Williamson on Thursday was diagnosed with a Grade 1 right knee sprain, according Duke's verified Twitter account. His status is day-to-day.
“I think they should be able to come out of high school, especially a guy like that who really doesn’t need college,” said Knicks second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr., who spent one season at North Carolina State after suffering a major knee injury during his high school years. “It’s just a stepping stone for him. Baseball players are allowed to go straight out of high school. I don’t really see the difference.”
The NBA has wrestled with this question for years, at one time allowing players to jump straight to the league from high school, then putting limitations of a year after his high school graduating class. Even now they have begun to tinker with the restrictions, utilizing the G League beginning next season as a path for elite prospects who are at least 18 years old. They will be paid $125,000 for the five-month season.
Williamson was the top prospect out of high school and could have been the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. If he had entered the NBA last summer, it would have been with a physique already at 6-7 and 285 pounds.
“My advice to him is do what’s best for you and your family,” Warriors forward DeMarcus Cousins told reporters. “Obviously, college isn’t. It does nothing for you at this point. You’ve proven you’re the No. 1 pick coming out and proven your talent. You’re ready for the next level. That’s my opinion, knowing what I know now. Obviously, when I was at that age, you enjoy the moment, you enjoy the experience and all that, but there’s so many risks involved to get to the ultimate goal, which is this level. Just do what’s best for him and his family.
"I loved my experience in college. That was some of the best years of my life, playing basketball. But with that being said, just how crooked the NCAA business is. I actually saw a post the other day where the highest ticket for that UNC-Duke game was $2,500, $3,500. How much does Zion Williamson receive? That’s who they’re coming to see. So how much of that is he getting? Actually, who does it go to? How does it benefit any player on that team? But if they’re able to get $20 and a free meal, they’re a bad kid, they get a bad rep, uncoachable, thugs, whatever the case may be.”
The Knicks have a handful of players who could have been presented that opportunity and took varying paths to the league.
Smith was one of the top high school players and opted for a year at North Carolina State, having grown up a fan of the program, before being taken No. 9 overall by the Mavericks. Emmanuel Mudiay played a season in China after high school before entering the draft and being selected No. 7 overall by Denver.
“I think the rule should be changed, but we’ve been talking about this for how long now?” Mudiay said. “I think they’re trying to figure that out, but at the same time, everybody feels like they should get at least some type of money.”
"I always say that it's tough to make a guy not work. It's America,” coach David Fizdale said. “I think that's the toughest part for the league, and all of these leagues. You got an 18-year-old that's capable and it's kind of hard to tell him he can't go out and earn a living. But they'll figure this stuff out at some point. The biggest thing is the safety net for kids who don't make it. They gotta figure that out, the kids that go into the draft sooner than they should, how do we make sure that those kids have a second chance at making it? Once we figure that out, I think this thing will be a different topic."
Kevin Knox, whose father won a football national championship while playing at Florida State, got calls about playing overseas, but his family never considered it. He opted for a season at Kentucky, where he felt the coaching and competition readied him for the next level. Mitchell Robinson sat out last season entirely, working out on his own in predraft preparation before being picked by the Knicks in the second round.
"I’ve seen a lot of people talking about if he should sit the rest of the season and stuff like that,” Knox said. “You go to college, you’re out there playing your games. Everyone dreams of playing March Madness and playing in those tournaments, big-time games. When I was in high school watching college games, I was like, ‘I can’t wait to get to March Madness.’ Everyone watching it at school is on their iPads, downloading the March Madness app.
“That’s the whole hype of it. It’s kind of hard. He’s a good kid. He’s a great kid, family. My mom knows his parents. It’s going to be hard for him not to just sit out the rest of the season and see his teammates go out there and play without him. It’s going to be a tough decision. It’s hard. Everyone wants to play March Madness and get to the Final Four, experience that whole thing. It’s definitely a tough decision.”