The season’s first Duke–North Carolina meeting had barely gotten underway on Wednesday night before college basketball’s biggest star in years went down in visible pain on a fluke play involving a broken shoe, and the hoops world collectively held its breath once it became apparent that Zion Williamson’s faulty sneaker wasn’t the only matter of concern. As tweets about Williamson being ruled out for the game began to circulate on social media, so too did a rapid response from many: This is why he should shut it down until he reaches the pros! He could cost himself millions!
It’s a fair and justifiable position. Everyone knows that Williamson’s time in Durham is dwindling; he’s a transcendent talent set to be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft. He’s more than proved his worth at the college level, and a major injury would set back the start of his professional career and depress his earning potential, even if he were still chosen with the top pick.
Fortunately, Williamson appears to have escaped serious damage—coach Mike Krzyzewski said shortly after Duke’s 88–72 loss that he has a mild knee sprain with no timetable for return yet. But that’s naturally not going to sway those who feel that the 18-year-old would be making the best business decision for himself by shutting it down to fully heal and focus on the draft, a decision that has been made several times by the top prospects in college football.
Business-wise, it’s hard to argue with that logic, especially given the fair compensation problems of college athletics. Players are always at risk of injury when they take the court, and there are plenty of recent cautionary tales to point to, whether it’s Kyrie Irving, Darius Garland, Michael Porter, Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel or others. Depending on the timing of a major injury, some players don’t get to decide whether they want to return later in the season or not; others shut it down for good to be on the safe side; still some, like Irving and Porter, return months later to try to help their team in the postseason.
Williamson may be a more unique case than most. He’s not just another five-star freshman talent—he’s the talent, the one whose ability and hype has been compared to LeBron James and who regularly elicits comments like the one from Roy Williams earlier this week, in which he said he’s “never seen” a college player with Williamson’s skill set. People were willing to pay upwards of $4,000 just to see Williamson and Duke take on their archrival on Wednesday night, and NBA players were quick to point out the irony in how much money was behind the game compared to the lack of monetary compensation for Williamson and other college athletes.
Still, Williamson’s situation may not be as black-and-white as it seems. Any decision ultimately rests with him, and if you believe his own words, playing at Duke and going after a national championship is something he’s intent on doing. There are multiple reasons why Williamson could want to finish out his one year in college, even with the natural risk of injury that existed before Wednesday’s scary turn.
Last month, Williamson shut down those who suggested he should sit out the rest of the season and protect his draft stock, saying "I can’t just stop playing. I’d be letting my teammates down. I’d be letting Coach K down. I’d be letting a lot of people down … If I was going to sit out, I wouldn’t have gone to college. I’m thankful that Coach K gave me the opportunity."
Sure, the cynical view is that Williamson, who at the time appeared to have no desire to end his college career early, was simply saying all the right things. But he’s been consistent on his stance, even recently telling NCAA.com that he would have gone to college “even if they would have had the NBA road … You’re never going to get this experience again.”
Thought to be Clemson–bound back when he was a big-time high school recruit, Williamson spurned his home-state Tigers last January in a surprise commitment to Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils, joining forces with the already-committed R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones to make for a historically loaded recruiting class. That class has lived up to the hype this year, surpassing early expectations back on opening night when it thrashed Kentucky and entering Wednesday’s clash with the Tar Heels with only two losses on the season.
As both the Vegas favorite and the team that the average fan would likely pick to cut down the nets, Duke’s national title chances are very real. Williamson has made clear his desire to win a championship and has spoken glowingly of his time under Coach K, and getting to experience the thrill of March Madness is a tantalizing prospect for players.
There’s another aspect to consider, one that would probably cause non-Duke fans to roll their eyes but is seemingly genuinely embraced by those inside the program. When Williamson committed to the Blue Devils, he did so with the line, “I’ll be joining The Brotherhood of Duke University.” It’s a reference to Duke’s branding of its culture—what it considers a tightly knit and familial bond even in the era of one-and-dones—and it’s a term you’ll hear many a Blue Devils alum speak of.
It lines up with how Williamson has talked about his own experience in Durham, especially when it comes to the relationship he’s formed with best-friend Barrett, who he told The Athletic is “almost like my twin.” When Williamson says he thinks he’d be “letting my teammates down” if he didn’t finish the season, it’s easy to believe him—even if his teammates would likely understand and provide their support.
Whatever Williamson decides—if there’s even a decision to be made in his mind—he shouldn’t face criticism. We saw through Wednesday night’s scare at Cameron Indoor how quickly the future can turn on its head, both for an individual and for a team. Without Williamson, Duke looked like Metropolis without Superman’s protection, a mere mortal in the face of the Tar Heels’ repeated attacks. It’s hard to picture the Blue Devils winning a title without their star, and for Williamson, the chance to chase one with his brothers just might make the risk worth it. And if not? That’s just business.