By David Gwyn
Zion Williamson became real for me on August 14, 2018. It was a meaningless practice before a barnstorming tour in Canada in honor of teammate RJ Barrett. Before that day, Zion was known as a physical freak of nature dominating 1A private school teams around the southeast. He was already an internet sensation, proving himself time and again on the court at various AAU tournaments. There was no question that he was the real deal, but was he really the best prospect to come out of high school (other than Barrett!) in the last 20 years? We didn’t really know – until he went to college.
So I ask, would the “Tao of Zion” as we now know it exist without Duke University, the Atlantic Coast Conference or ESPN? If an NBA executive had taken a chance on this kid who was coached by his mom and spent his high school career playing against boys half his size, would the league promote him above Lebron, Steph and KD or the Beard? No chance. He’d be another late night highlight, playing out of Phoenix or Sacramento. Lebron entered the league with plenty of fanfare being drafted No. 1 by his hometown Cavaliers and winning the 2003 Rookie of the Year award, but the hype didn’t reach Zion levels until later. He never had the visibility and emotional attachments that come with the college game.
While Zion gives credence to the argument that high school players should be allowed to go directly to the NBA, I would argue that no pro prospect has ever benefited more from playing in college. Between the Duke, ACC and ESPN brands, there has never been any athlete more hyped and no one – other than MJ and Lebron arguably – has ever lived up to the hype so completely. Because of that, Zion stands ready to cash in like no one has before at this point in his career.
Because he played college basketball – a national stage that has massive crossover appeal among sports fans – his personal brand, i.e., his value and income potential, soared. And that doesn’t include all he did for the commercial channels connected to the college game. Private planes were leased to follow him around the country, for Pete’s sake. I’m certain it was the best year ever for scalpers following the Blue Devils around like groupies. Just imagine if Zion had played just two more games as an amateur. We’d be talking GOAT.
Zions and LeBrons are rare. Few players ever need concern themselves about whether to choose college or the NBA. But for those few, I hope they see where at least one year in the college ranks can take them. The difference in their lives, and in their NBA contracts, could be monumental.
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