Should Zion Williamson Say Goodbye to Duke After Knee Injury Scare?

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Duke's Zion Williamson sits on the floor following a injury during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

In the leadup to the first of this season’s two (three? four??) men’s basketball matchups between Duke and North Carolina, one of the biggest stories making its rounds on social media was the Super Bowl-level ticket prices just to get into Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Between the decades-old rivalry and the limited seating capacity, it’s one of the hottest tickets every year. But this time, people were paying several thousands of dollars on the secondary market for the chance to watch Zion Williamson.

He lasted 30 seconds before leaving the game with a severity-to-be-determined knee injury when his foot ripped through his shoe. Williamson did not return, and North Carolina cruised to an 88-72 victory.

And the student-athlete who everyone was paying to see?

He received zero of those dollars.

Before we get into asking the inescapable question of whether Williamson should ever play another unpaid second for Duke, can we talk about the absurdity of this injury for a second?

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised because this is the same man-child who dented a basketball with his fingers during that epic comeback against Louisville, who gained 100 pounds in two years and who we’ve been waiting all season with bated breath to watch shatter a backboard. Feats of near-impossible strength are just sort of his thing.

But planting so hard that you destroy a shoe is incomprehensible. Even the greatest, strongest basketball players roll an ankle from time to time, but not Zion. Evidently, his calves, ankle tendons and countless lower-leg ligaments are stronger than leather.

Unbelievable stuff, and a testament to why he’s going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft no matter how bad the knee injury ends up being. Given the amount of success Blake Griffin, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have had in spite of major injuries before their professional careers even began, this isn’t going to scare NBA teams away from Williamson.

Which brings us back to something Scottie Pippen and Tracy McGrady discussed on ESPN’s The Jump on January 16: Why keep playing and risk a major injury?

Over the past few years, this has predominantly been a college football discussion surrounding players sitting out meaningless bowl games to avoid injury before the combine, but get ready for it to become a talking point on the hardwood.

Frankly, it’s surprising that we hadn’t already been having that debate, since Simmons and Markelle Fultz spent the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, respectively, risking injury for teams that missed the NCAA tournament. We also saw Michael Porter Jr. return to a bubble-y Missouri team for the SEC tournament following a four-month absence due to back surgery.

At least Williamson had been having fun as the big man on campus for the favorites to win the national championship.

And here’s a key counterpoint to consider: If Williamson is going to be the No. 1 pick no matter what the MRI says, what was he risking by playing?

The argument makes sense for a guy like Harry Giles who had multiple major surgeries before he even got to college. He ran the risk of plummeting in draft boards by showing NBA teams that he no longer possessed the skill set everyone fell in love with early in his high school career.

But good luck trying to convince one of the best in the world to stop doing what he loves because he might suffer an injury that won’t cost him any money.

Hell, if anything, Zion’s impending shoe deal just became even more lucrative, because the jokes about constructing a shoe that even he can’t break will be a marketing gold mine.

Williamson’s situation is unique, of course. A lot of high school phenoms actually are risking injury that could cause a significant future pay cut, and they’re doing so in exchange for little more than a free education that some abandon before the end of two semesters.

Former Louisville Cardinal Donovan Mitchell offered his thoughts on the situation on Twitter:

He was referring to Williamson’s injury, but it’s more interesting to consider guys like Darius Garland and Bol Bol, neither of whom made it through nonconference play before suffering season-ending injuries.

Both of those one-and-done freshmen are still projected lottery picks, but they probably won’t go as high as they would have without the injuries. Both guys might have been top-10 picks straight out of high school if they had been allowed to go that route, but now they’ve each lost a year of their playing careers while acquiring injury question marks.

It will be interesting to see if any / how many top recruits are willing to take up the NBA on its G League offering of $125,000 for what is essentially one year of predraft NBA training instead of the one-and-done approach to college.

That doesn’t apply to Williamson, but this latest in the rash of injuries to top prospects might be the catalyst that drives the conversation forward this offseason.

So should Williamson ever play again for the Blue Devils?

That’s up to him, his family and Duke’s doctors.

Even if it’s a minor injury and he’d rather play it safe and sit out the rest of the season, power to him. It might upset his teammates a bit, but they’ll understand, and he doesn’t owe college basketball anything more than what he has already given it.

If he is willing and able to return, though, that’s awesome. College basketball fans around the country will welcome him back with loving arms.

Just make sure to get him some better kicks next time.

        

Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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