The NCAA has been under fire recently from seemingly all sides in its revenue sports, and Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen just rolled up another cannon to fire at college basketball’s castle.
The cannon’s target: ultimately, whether college basketball is even relevant when its marquee players are there only because the NBA won’t let them declare for the draft out of high school.
Duke standout Zion Williamson is at the center of the controversy.
Pippen, along with fellow NBA legend Tracy McGrady, went on Rachel Nichols’ “The Jump” on ESPN Wednesday and said he believes Williamson should “shut it down.”
He threw his reason down on college basketball like Zion throwing down a dunk.
“I think he’s locked up the biggest shoe deal, I think he’s definitely going to be the No. 1 pick, I think he’s done enough for college basketball that it’s more about him personally,” Pippen said. “I would shut it down. I think for him as a young player, I would stop playing because I feel that he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career.”
Tracy McGrady and @ScottiePippen don’t agree on whether Zion Williamson is the best player on his Duke team – but regardless, they both think he should stop playing NCAA ball right now, to eliminate the risk of injury before the draft. pic.twitter.com/7Egu42FjfJ
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) January 16, 2019
Granted, this is just idle speculation and probably a moot point; the chances Williamson leaves his team in the middle of the season are practically nil, as his bond with his teammates and Duke’s pursuit of a national title are, in the moment, compelling stories and powerful motivation.
But as a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis, a good argument can be made that Pippen is exactly right.
Williamson gives up zero dollars in salary or other benefits to stop playing college ball. He’s not being paid. He’s not going to make money from a college education the way student-athletes who, to steal a line from the NCAA’s own marketing, “go pro in something other than sports” do.
His professional value and earning potential come from one source: the National Basketball Association.
All of his shoe deals, all of his ancillary endorsements, all of his marketable fame — they all stem purely from playing basketball on the highest stage, and considering the salary and endorsements that people like LeBron James and Michael Jordan have hauled in both on and off the basketball court, that is a huge amount of money.
Jordan is a billionaire. Type “Michael Jordan net worth” into Google and it spits back $1.7 billion” before you even finish typing. Do the same for James and you get an estimate of $440 million, and James is 20 years younger than Jordan and has plenty of time to invest and earn his way to that $1.7 billion figure if he plays his cards right.
If Zion Williamson, who has played 16 games of college basketball and set the world on fire with his highlight reels, suffers an injury that jeopardizes his marketability, he could stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars.
Of course, if he shuts it down and refuses to play, he risks hurting his draft stock as a troublemaker or a guy with “character issues.”
But put yourself in the draft room for the Cavaliers or Knicks or Suns or whatever other dumpster fire of an NBA franchise wins the lottery next season. Do you really pass on a talent who’s being discussed as having a ceiling in the LeBron/Jordan territory because he didn’t want to risk his future value to you, the very NBA squad that’s drafting him?
From a certain point of view, he put you first.
Of course, there’s plenty of hand-wringing going on in college circles. If one-and-done players play only half the season before shutting it down to go pro, that reduces the marketability of March Madness and creates a problem with recruiting where big schools aren’t going to want to get guys who don’t want to be there and won’t play.
But if you’re Zion Williamson, why should you care? If the NCAA loses money, the players don’t lose any money; if revenue gets cut in half, half of nothing is still nothing.
Furthermore, the NBA continues to move toward a scenario where it’ll be using the G-League to pay would-be one-and-done college players an actual salary, and all it would take the NBA to effectively kill college basketball would be to get all 30 teams an affiliate, expand two-way contracts to give teams full control over their entire G-League roster, and now you’ve got what baseball has, a true minor league that offers a more attractive option for prospects than college does.
If Williamson shuts down his season, sits out March Madness, stops going to class, hires an agent and hits the gym to get ready for the combine, it would cause a firestorm at Duke.
But if he gets hurt in college, he loses a lottery jackpot’s worth of guaranteed money on his rookie contract.
Scottie Pippen might just have a point. Superstar college players who are a lock to go at the top of the draft have more to lose from playing than from not playing.
Should Williamson follow Pippen’s advice? That’s up to him. But if you were in his shoes, given just what that decision would mean, tell me you wouldn’t at least think about it.
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