Should Zion Williamson return after knee injury?

By DANIEL LANDY | February 28, 2019

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In my opinion, the rivalry between Duke University and University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s basketball teams may be the best in all of sports. The two teams play each other at least twice per year — three times if we’re lucky — and their matchups never disappoint. That was until last Wednesday, in the game when Zion Williamson, the Blue Devils’ once-in-a-generation phenom, was set to leave his mark on the rivalry at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The hype heading into the matchup was at an all-time high, with people as famous as former President Barack Obama making sure that they were attendance. The ticket prices: even higher. Vivid Seats listed the minimum ticket price on the day of the game at $2,500. Additionally, the company reported that one seat was sold for a whopping $10,652

There is no doubt that Duke’s No. 3 ranking and UNC’s No. 5 ranking contributed to the hoopla surrounding the game. But is that scenario anything new for the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels? Maybe you could say that the astronomical prices of admission were due to Cameron Indoor’s relatively low seating capacity of 9,314? But of course, the Blue Devils have been playing there since 1940, and these prices were foreign even by Duke-UNC standards.

Clearly the difference this time around, the factor that had escalated the biggest day of the year in Durham, N.C. to even more outrageous proportions than normal — keep in mind that Duke students sleep in tents for months just to get tickets to this game — was Zion. Every year, Duke and UNC recruit a handful of the nation’s top players, and this season, they have a combined half dozen youngsters who will likely be drafted in June. To put Zion’s greatness into perspective, he is considered to be head-and-shoulders above each and every one them. And this was his opportunity to put on a show for the entire nation to see.

And then his shoe fell apart 36 seconds into the game. He immediately fell to the floor, eventually hobbled of the court and missed the rest of the game. The Tar Heels went on to pummel the Blue Devils 88-72 (that score that hardly depicts the one-sidedness of the contest), and Zion was diagnosed with a Grade 1 knee sprain. He is considered day-to-day. In his absence, Duke pulled out a victory at unranked Syracuse University, then fell on the road to No. 20 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

March Madness is right around the corner. Duke has two games before it plays UNC again on March 9, and it will then turn its attention to the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. There is no doubt that Zion is itching to return to the court as soon as possible and that his teammates want him by their side for their postseason run. But should he come back? That’s the question everyone is asking, and it’s certainly a controversial one. My answer: only if he is absolutely at 100 percent, and even then, I’d be hesitant.

In the end, this all comes down to a risk-reward analysis. In terms of the reward, if Zion returns and leads the Blue Devils to ACC and National Championships, he will be immortalized in Durham and go first overall in the draft. But what about the risk? What if the doctors clear him for next Tuesday’s game against Wake Forest University as a tune-up for the UNC rematch and he goes down again? Or if he helps Duke reach the ACC Championship Game but lands awkwardly after an emphatic dunk? Or even if he gets the team all the way to the Final Four but ends up re-injuring himself in the process? Suddenly, Zion would be considered an injury-prone player, his draft stock would potentially take a hit, and he would maybe not even be ready for his rookie season.

Zion has an $8 million dollar insurance policy that will kick in if he falls below the 16th pick in the draft. If that doesn’t validate this guy’s worth and all that he has to lose, I don’t know what will. Zion’s basketball abilities have positioned him to make an exorbitant amount of money in the NBA if all goes as expected. He is a physical specimen and assuming he enters the draft without a serious injury, he will be the first pick regardless of what any other player in the country does the rest of the season.

But beyond this, he is a national sensation. The media loves him, the fans love him, and that is exactly what will play well when he is negotiating off-the-court endorsements — which is where basketball’s biggest stars truly differentiate their earnings from their colleagues. Can you imagine him risking all of this to play in games for which he is not even getting paid?

How much value can you actually attach to winning in March Madness? Will it really affect how anyone other than the “Cameron Crazies” remembers Zion? Let’s take today’s NBA as an example. In the All-Star Game earlier this month, only two of the players chosen to play in the game — Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker and New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis — won NCAA Championships. I’d say the other 25 guys turned out just fine without that extra line on their résumé.

The truth of the matter is that the excitement of the NCAA Tournament is actually more about relishing the early stages than it is about seeing who ultimately cuts down the nets. I’d like to think that a majority of people would say that the first four days — the rounds of 64 and 32 — are the most exciting stages of the tournament, when all of the chaos and upsets are in full swing. We like to see the Cinderellas succeed: the Butlers, the Florida Gulf Coasts, the George Masons. Think back to last year. Unless you’re from Philadelphia or Ann Arbor, I’d bet you remember Loyola University Chicago’s stunning run to the Final Four and Sister Jean much more vividly than you remember the championship game between Villanova University and the University of Michigan.

Zion will have plenty of opportunities to build his legacy in the NBA, as all of basketball’s greats have done throughout the game’s history. People always say that Michael Jordan went six-for-six in the NBA Finals. His national championship at UNC is often just an afterthought. For someone like Carmelo Anthony, who never won an NBA title, his championship run at Syracuse has certainly helped his legacy. But he will not be remembered nearly as fondly as Dwyane Wade, who has three NBA titles, but fell two wins short of the NCAA Championship the year that Melo won it. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant? They didn’t even go to college. As long as one excels in the pros, a small college body of work will not define how his basketball career is judged. 

Zion shouldn’t rush back for the UNC game, the ACC Tournament or the NCAA Tournament. He needs to focus on his long-term objectives. As the most highly touted prospect since LeBron, he has nowhere to go but down, and he needs to mitigate the risks when his stock is at its peak. He is lucky that his injury is a relatively minor one, but he should not treat it lightly. The last thing he wants to do is come back too early and play with a slight tentativeness, because that’s when his body will be the most vulnerable. As much as it may pain him to watch his teammates move forward without him, it will ultimately be in his best interest to do so. Time is the best medicine, and by the time he heals and makes his NBA debut in October, this saga will have already been long forgotten. 

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