When Duke's Zion Williamson went down clutching his knee during a game against UNC last night, the world of basketball held its breath. Everyone feared the worst, that we had seen a season-ending injury for the best player in college basketball.
— Overtime (@overtime) February 21, 2019
You see, Zion Williamson is no ordinary NBA prospect. He's certainly the brightest prospect we have seen since Anthony Davis in 2012, with some claiming he could be the most mercurial talent in the game since the emergence of LeBron James in 2003.
His athleticism is unlike anything we have seen before. Coming in at 6foot 8inches, 280lbs, his freakish speed and jumping ability make him a unique physical specimen.
While Zion's dunking ability rose him to national prominence early in his high school days, his intangibles have taken many by surprise since entering the college game. His ball handling and passing means he can be the focal point of any offence, and couple this with once in a generation athleticism, and it is clear to see where the hype is coming from.
He plays hard too, on every possession. His athletic gifts mean he will be a plus defender from day one in the NBA, as evidenced by his current averages of 2.2 steals and 1.8 block per-game.
Averaging 21.6PPG and 8.8RPG at Duke, he is almost guaranteed to be selected at number one overall in June's draft. While there is no such thing as a certainty when it comes to the NBA draft, Zion Williamson is as close as it gets.
That's why there was a collective sigh of relief when his injury was revealed to be a sprained knee. Painful yes, but it will not have a long-term impact on his career, on his ability to earn millions of dollars. Make no mistake about it, a debilitating injury could cost him hundreds of millions of dollars. Were his career to end tomorrow, it would rob him of the chance to earn an NBA contract, and his chance to change his life forever.
Despite Zion Williamson being one of the biggest names in basketball at the moment, he has yet to earn a single dollar. That is due to the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of third level sports in the United States.
It's a 🕊️. It's a ✈️. It's Zion Williamson coming in for a massive block. ✋pic.twitter.com/kMEN9yFlTP
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) February 10, 2019
They insist that all collegiate athletes remain amateurs, and as such are not paid. They are not even permitted to have other sources of income such as endorsement deals. So when Zion Williamson went down, there was a chance that this bizarre rule could have stopped him from making a living from playing basketball.
The NCAA argue that the players are compensated via scholarships, which can reach six figure values. They are offered a college education, which is something that is not accessible to many Americans. But all this pales in comparison to the amount of money that these star athletes rake in each year.
The NCAA has annual revenues of over $1billion, provided by players who get essentially nothing in return.
Their control even comes down to the little things. Duke, Williamson's college, have a deal with Nike which requires all their players to wear Nike apparel in games. With players not permitted to source their own clothing deals, they must follow the ones provided by the school. And what caused Zion's injury last night? His shoes.
— Telegraph Sport (@TelegraphSport) February 21, 2019
So if the nation's top prospects are being exploited in this system, why do they enter it all? Well, they don't really have a choice. The NBA requires that a player be one year removed from their final year of high school before they enter the NBA draft. After a glut of players headed straight from high school to the NBA in the 90's and early 00's the rule was brought in with mounting pressure from the NCAA.
That leaves those players with a choice: spend a year in college or go and play professionally overseas. Very few have followed the second route, and 18-year olds should not be forced to move to a different continent in order to earn even a fraction of what they are worth.
If this rule were not in place, Zion Williamson would be in the NBA right now. It is an antiquated system, that only benefits the NCAA. It hinders the earning power of the top prospects in the game, with the possibility that a freak incident during their lone year in college could stop them from being handed life-changing amounts of money.
There has been a push in recent times to let these players capitalise on their earning power. Many are calling for an end of the 'one and done' era of college hoops, with players being allowed to enter the NBA draft straight out of high school.
It is something that will be open for discussion in the next NBA collective bargaining agreement, and the rule change could come into effect for the 2023 season. League Commissioner Adam Silver has been receptive to the idea, and it certainly seems on the cards. In what is such a short career, every year counts.
Until then, collegiate stars will continue to be exploited. The Zion Williamson incident will serve as a reminder of the current perils of a flawed system. He was lucky, the next rising star may not be.