The easiest thing to say about the knee injury suffered by Zion Williamson on Wednesday, however serious it turns out to be, is that it’s just the latest example of how the NCAA exploits highly-prized prospects, who assume all the risk to their future playing college basketball while being restricted from earning their fair share off games like Duke-North Carolina where tickets sold for thousands of dollars and drew celebrities like Spike Lee and former president Barack Obama.
But before you hold up Williamson as the cause célèbre for the ills of amateurism, consider the following two factors:
1. There is practically no conceivable injury he could suffer on a basketball court that would prevent him from becoming the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA draft.
2. That would not have been possible without Williamson’s year at Duke, in which he electrified the college game and put himself on a tier well above every other prospect in the world.
We’ll undoubtedly find out in the coming days whether the injury Williamson suffered in the first minute on Wednesday night is serious or a minor bump in the road, whether it will force him to end his college career prematurely or whether he intends to come back and play in the NCAA tournament.
And all the while, a debate will rage among the amateur Twitter doctors and people who have no real stake in Williamson’s future over what he should do and whether putting on a Duke uniform again would be too big of a risk.
That debate will happen concurrent to the typical screeds over the the NBA’s one-and-done rule and the fundamental unfairness that a transcendent talent like Williamson, who has 2.4 million followers on Instagram, is not able to profit off his name, image and likeness during his one year of college basketball.
But as worthy as those conversations are, it is just as undeniable that Williamson has benefited greatly from the time spent at Duke, even if it ends now.
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After 25 games of college basketball in which he averaged 22.4 points and posted historically dominant efficiency numbers along with all the freakishly athletic highlights, Williamson has separated himself to a degree that the No. 1 pick isn’t really even up for debate. Even if he suffered some kind of significant injury down the stretch like an ACL or Achilles tear, it’s overwhelmingly likely the NBA team picking No. 1 would just roll the dice and wait for him to heal. That’s how far ahead of the pack Williamson put himself this season.
And it wouldn’t have happened without him playing a year of college basketball.
Never forget: While Williamson’s dunks and quick-twitch athleticism at 6-foot-7, 285 pounds made him well-known on social media as a high schooler, he was not considered the best player in his age group until this season.
Both Rivals and 247 Sports rated him No. 5, behind Duke teammates R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. ESPN put him behind Barrett at No. 2. Had Williamson been able to go directly from high school to the NBA draft, he would have been a high lottery pick but almost certainly wouldn’t have gone No. 1.
WILLIAMSON HURT: Sneaker of Duke star blows apart in game’s first minute
DUKE GOES DOWN: No. 1 Blue Devils blown out by UNC after Williamson’s injury
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Mind you, this isn’t an argument for the current system. Players should be allowed to go directly from high school to the pros, and had Williamson been able to take advantage of that, his life and career would have turned out fine.
But look at what’s happened in the last four months. Playing at Duke on national television twice a week against college kids who have no chance of stopping him has elevated Williamson from just another very good prospect to a marketing and television ratings machine. It’s simply undeniable at this point that a year of college basketball has made him several more million dollars upon entry to the NBA than he would have as just another No. 4 overall pick that most fans hadn’t seen.
Obviously, it doesn’t work out this way for everyone. Some elite prospects go to college and watch their stock plummet as they struggle with the physicality and structure of the college game. Others, like Ben Simmons at LSU, are just wasting time.
But Williamson’s college experience has been, from all accounts, a joyous experience. Rather than treat his year at Duke like a 401K, he’s attacked it with reckless abandon and elevated his game, his reputation and marketing potential in the process.
But even if college athletes could be paid, even if they could collect on their name, image and likeness rights, it wouldn’t change the fundamental fact that playing basketball is some level of risk to his future earning potential in the NBA. That’s true in every practice, every workout and every game until he gets drafted, and it never goes away.
So if Williamson wants to shut it down until the draft because he got a scare Wednesday night, you can’t blame him. If he wants to accept that risk and keep playing because it means a lot to him to play for a national championship, that’s fine, too.
Either way, the odds are overwhelming that no matter what happens, Williamson is going to be the first player to walk across the stage on June 20 and shake NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand.
So while there are plenty of reasons to crush college basketball and question its utility for many of the top prospects, Williamson’s experience isn’t one of them.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.