The chatter about Zion Williamson returning to Duke last year seemed farfetched.
Williamson, a generationally great prospect, was a lock to go No. 1 in the NBA draft. He already faced an injury scare in college. The money was huge – a four-year, $44,271,137 contract and, more importantly, starting the clock toward his second deal plus a record-setting shoe contract. Practically no players anywhere near Williamson’s level have bypassed the draft in recent memory. Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, even said there was no consideration for returning to Duke.
But apparently Williamson actually thought about it. Hard.
Williamson, via The Ringer:
It was like the deadline, I think the deadline when you had to declare. You had to say, “Alright, what are you going to do, declare or not?”
Me, I wanted to go back. Nobody ever believes me. They think I’m just saying that. But no, I genuinely wanted to go back. I felt like the NBA wasn’t going anywhere. The money thing, that’s money. I don’t play this for money. I play it, because I genuinely love the game. I just loved my experience at Duke that much, where I wanted to stay.
But it was one of those situations where Coach K is not going to let me come back, because he wants me to do what’s best for the family. My teammates were saying, “That would be dope if you come back.” But at the same time, they’re telling me I would be leaving too much. I didn’t work this long to get to that. It was tough.
At the end of the day, I think it was kind of my mom. She said she’s going to support in whatever I do. So, I was like, “Alright, I’m going back.” And then I think her and my stepdad talked about it, and they were like, “You worked too hard to get to this moment. You’d feel bad if you left it.” So, I said, “I did work for this since I was four or five.” So, I’m going to go.
That would changed the landscape through multiple levels of basketball. The NCAA would have taken an undeserved victory lap. Duke would be even better (if Williamson were healthy). The Pelicans would have less upside (though Ja Morant would have been a solid consolation prize). Maybe without another big name incoming, New Orleans would have handled the Anthony Davis trade differently, potentially affecting the Lakers.
I hope Williamson ultimately made the decision he wanted.
Everyone assumes Williamson should want the fame and fortune of the NBA. And maybe they’re right. This money can set him up for life. There’s nothing wrong a teenager taking advice. Sometimes, people need a push out of a comfortable status quo.
But the current system creates a predicament: There’s no going back to college basketball from the pros. Last year was absolutely the optimal time for Williamson to declare for the draft. But if he enjoyed college life, he loses his opportunity to experience that again.
I also wonder how Williamson views his decision now. He has yet to play this season due to a knee injury. The NBA would have always been there for him after another season at Duke, but not necessarily with the salary and endorsements of a No. 1 pick.
The forces of this system push elite prospects toward the first-possible draft. However Williamson felt, that was too great to overcome. I’m not sure whether this a happy or sad story.