Within minutes of Zion Williamson’s shoe breaking, and the subsequent report of a minor injury, Twitter exploded with hot takes. The majority of them arguing that the NCAA has wronged Zion by “forcing” him to play a year at Duke before jumping to the NBA. This argument has significant flaws. First and foremost, the “one and done rule” is not an NCAA rule but an NBA rule. In addition, Zion was in no way forced to play college basketball, he could have gone overseas or even taken a year off to work with a trainer before declaring for the draft. Zion made a choice to go to Duke as he felt it was the best option available to him. People also forget Zion was not the cant miss, sure fire #1 overall prospect he is now, out of high school. Zion was ranked as the #2 recruit by ESPN, 5 by 24/7 sports and 5 by Rivals. Duke teammate RJ Barrett was unanimously #1 and even Cam Reddish was ahead of him in two of the three rankings. There were significant questions about whether Zions play style would work against better athletes. He did not, and still does not, have a reliable jump shot and is undersized height wise as a small forward.
Since arriving at Duke Zion has shown that he is simply on a different level athletically than almost anyone in the world and worthy of the #1 overall pick. His case in many ways makes the argument for why the one and done rule is in place. ESPN’s initial mock draft for the 2019 draft had Zion going #7 overall, behind players like Nassir Little, Cam Reddish and Quentin Grimes. Let’s imagine for now that there was no one and done rule and players could go straight to the NBA out of high school. When mixed in with prospects from the 2018 draft, it’s likely Zion wouldn’t have even gone top 10. This is the exact reason for the one and done rule. The motivation for the NBA is simple, better product on the court equals more viewers and more money. Not only that but NBA front office executives’ jobs are on the line with every personnel decision they make. It is nearly impossible to accurately evaluate top prospects in high school, the competition is simply not good enough. One year of evaluation at the college level is enough to expose many of the flaws of the top prospects and show that Zion Williamson is a far superior prospect than Nassir Little for example. Allowing players to go to the NBA straight out of high school; would be hurt the quality of the NBA.
In addition to the positives that the rule provides the NBA, Zion has benefitted beyond his aforementioned draft stock. First and foremost, Zion now has a world class Duke education to fall back on if he ever needs, as all former Duke players are able to return and finish their degree’s whenever they wish. Secondly, Zion has reaped the rewards of the Duke brand. It’s true that Zion was much more famous than the average big-time prospect before Duke due to his incredible high school highlight reel. However, his fame has reached crazy levels since arriving at Duke. I would argue that Zion is now more well-known than the vast majority of NBA players. Had Zion gone straight to the NBA and been drafted by essentially any team not in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or Los Angeles he likely does not have the individual brand he has now. Marvin Bagley serves as a great example of this. It was common to see Bagley’s name trending on twitter while at Duke, however I can’t remember the last time I heard about Bagley since being drafted by the Kings. Nearly every game Duke plays is nationally televised, while the Kings play one nationally televised game all year. The recent Duke Louisville game on a Tuesday, drew a 1.2 national rating, equating to about 1.8 million viewers. The Kings average a 1.33 local rating, equating to about 9 thousand viewers. There is simply no comparison. As shown by Lebron James who according to Forbes makes about 55 million dollars in endorsements every year, the real money for a star like Zion comes not through an NBA contract but through endorsement deals. While there is no way to know for sure how big of a star Zion would have become had he been drafted by a smaller market team, it is highly doubtful that he would’ve amassed the following he has now, something that could result in major earnings in the near future.