It took Duke's star freshman Zion Williamson ripping his shoe apart like Calvin Cambridge in Like Mike for the majority of us to realize how counterproductive this process could be.
Williamson – the consensus number-one pick in June’s 2019 NBA Draft – could literally do nothing to improve his draft stock between now and this summer. Shutting himself down and not playing college basketball anymore, regardless of whether or not he is actually healthy, should be the obvious decision to make.
Average ticket prices for top-ranked Duke hosting the 8th-ranked archrival North Carolina was $2,663 each. Not a single dime for the kids, while each coach – and the respective universities – bank in millions of dollars annually off the backs of their athletic programs, in this case, largely due to basketball.
Logically, if you’re Zion, this should be it.
Williamson is a three-point jumpshot away from being the greatest prospect in modern NBA Draft history, save for LeBron James. If his work ethic is any indication, he’ll eventually add that, too. (He’s currently shooting 29% from college three while attempting nearly two per game.)
And in spite of that, and his 6’7”, 285-pound frame, he’s still far and away the likely number-one pick in June, with nothing left to prove by spending another second wearing Duke colors, especially when he could have a (non-Nike) sneaker deal today, worth an exuberant amount of money.
Really, how much would teammates R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish benefit from finishing up the season strong in their own right? Nasir Little, North Carolina’s sixth man, and the now-injured Oregon center Bol Bol, have hurt their respective draft stock by playing on campus. And even a mid-major monster like Ja Morant has shown enough to cement himself as possibly the top-pick after Williamson.
The NCAA model of exploitation disguised as education does more harm than good, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of other opportunities in the basketball world.
Take it from Ben Simmons, who also gained nothing by playing at LSU. In fact, do you even remember that he played at LSU?
Draft stock matters because, among other reasons, there is money at stake.
In 2013, before rookie salaries continually inflated, Anthony Bennett was shockingly taken first overall, and subsequently brought in $5.3 million. Nerlens Noel, the consensus number-one overall pick before tearing his ACL that February, fell to sixth, and made only $3.1 million as a rookie – a season in which he didn’t play in because of his injury at the University of Kentucky.
Other times, the drop-off could be performance based. One example is recent Slam Dunk champion Hamidou Diallo.
Diallo, a native of Lefrak in the NYC borough of Queens, played a chunk of his high school ball at John Bowne before transferring to a prep school in Connecticut, Putnam Science Academy. Midway through the 2016-17 season, he committed to the University of Kentucky and was eligible to play upon starting his semester in January of that year. He elected to sit while attending classes at Kentucky.
He subsequently entered the NBA Draft in 2017, recording the second highest vertical ever at the combine – leaping 44.5 inches – before pulling out and electing to actually play for Kentucky. He made that decision despite being widely considered a late first-round pick, if not an early second rounder.
Diallo was selected 45th overall in 2018 after an underwhelming campaign for the subpar (by their standards) Wildcats team, and while it all may work out for him, the decision may have hurt his stock and his finances, at least in the short-run.
We also thought he broke his leg in November, which would’ve made matters far worse.
Terrance Ferguson, Brandon Jennings, and Emmanuel Mudiay are three examples of pro ballers who successfully ventured overseas before coming into the NBA. Jennings enjoyed a good stretch of years as an exciting, dynamic point guard before being relegated to a bench role as he hit his prime years. Mudiay is having his best campaign and turns 23 next month, while Ferguson is already a key contributor for a contender in the West.
And then, we have the G League, the NBA’s developmental system. On a larger scale, perhaps more would benefit from Euro-stepping NCAA-regulated basketball in favor of playing overseas, working out on their own or going directly into the G League.
This past October, the NBA announced that beginning prior to the 2019-20 season, the league will implement a new professional path for elite basketball prospects to obtain a select contract upon playing in the G League. Elite high school prospects who qualify will bank $125,000 playing professional basketball in the growing developmental system of the NBA while being draft eligible after one season.
One-and-done, with $125,000 and no college experience, while playing every day with and against professionals.
The counter would be that instead of being babied and given the Hollywood treatment at a Power Five college, you would travel to places like Sioux Falls, Fort Wayne, and Portland... no, the other one all the way in Maine.
But let’s be honest, the ACC has Charlottesville, Virginia, among other interesting cities.
And the bottom line is, what is playing in college really doing for these elite level student-athletes, especially when the G League starts to become a more viable alternative?
Big-time college athletics are the most profitable internships in the world, but not for the athletes like Zion Williamson, who put themselves in the most risk.
I know, I know. I've aged poorly. I also know that neither you or I actually believe that. I cover NYC sports + more in a variety of ways. 4x NYPA nominee.