Zion Williamson and paying collegiate athletes

Zion Williamson is the name of a 6 foot 7 inch, 284 pound man who is widely regarded as the best basketball prospect of this generation. Don’t let those numbers deceive you — he’s famous for absurd athleticism and flashy dunks.

Currently, Williamson plays for Duke University on one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled, on paper. The team was practically unstoppable until Feb. 20, when 33 seconds into a game against rival University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, Williamson’s left foot ripped through his shoe. He ended up leaving the game with a knee sprain. Duke went on to lose that game and another against #20 Virginia Tech in the 3 games played since.

The injury has reignited a debate surrounding college athletes: should they be paid? Many are calling for them to have some sort of salary, or have expressed frustration at the “one-and-done” rule, where high school players are essentially coerced into playing a year in college before they’re allowed to declare for the NBA draft. Many regarded Zion as the #1 overall pick, had it been possible for him to declare out of high school. Unfortunately, he had to risk injury by playing college basketball, and that risk has become a reality.

While the debate about paying college athletes is overwhelmingly complex, the “one-and-done” debacle might soon be resolved. The NBA notified teams last October that high school players can declare as soon as the 2022 draft. Coincidentally, at almost the same time of Williamson’s injury, it was reported and confirmed that the NBA was proposing to abolish the “one-and-done rule.”

Additionally, the NBA G League (the development league), recently announced the Select Contract, where elite high school players can sign for $125,000 through a five month season. This is good news, as it will potentially draw in more talent, since one of the issues in the past was that the competition was arguably not as strong as the college scene.

Another option is to play overseas. Recently, the NBA has seen an influx of exceptional players from Europe and elsewhere, like Kristaps Porzingis, Luka Doncic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. As these players become stars, hopefully more high school athletes will begin to see it as a viable option. Despite the complications that come with living alone in a foreign country as an 18 year old, players can be paid for their time there.

Ideally, NBA teams should have academies like top soccer clubs do (and in European basketball), where talented kids play in a development system that gives them an education and a path to the top flight for those as young as 16. This is regrettably unlikely to happen, and the best potential scenario would be for the G League to grow larger than the NCAA. In many ways the G League is close — had Zion Williamson signed into the G League, it wouldn’t have been far from the imagination to see the G League as a prime-time affair. $125,000 is already a lot more than a free year of tuition, and the Select Contract program includes life mentorship and other developmental implements as well. Perhaps it should be said that the NCAA is the last place where we should give our money to, and the last place Williamson should lend his talents.

March Madness is just around the corner, and we’ll have to see if Williamson plays the remainder of the season or decides to not risk injury again and prepare for the draft. For now, all basketball fans will be wishing him a speedy recovery.