Zion Williamson’s extraordinary and brief college career is almost assuredly over. The megastar’s Duke Blue Devils lost in the Elite Eight on Sunday, and one expects that the player overwhelmingly favored to go No. 1 in June’s 2019 NBA Draft will soon declare the end of his days in Durham.
Williamson has essentially been an NBA character for years now, since his high school dunk Vines became legion on the basketball internet going back three years. Now as he prepares to finally become an NBA player, it’s worth looking at how intertwined his career has become with the league’s complicated policy battles.
Williamson, of course, would not be at Duke if not for the NBA age minimum instituted in 2006. Williamson had an enormous level of fame for a high school and AAU athlete before committing to Duke. He had exactly the profile of the type of player who, before the age minimum was foisted upon 18-year-old prospects, would jump straight to the pros out of high school. These days, he fit the profile of a one-and-done star: someone who spends six months or so on a college campus essentially auditioning for NBA teams.
Williamson’s audition went incredibly well. In fact, in a weird twist of fate, despite being among the most famous high school basketball players of this era, His NBA stock was actually helped by his year in college. Williamson wasn’t actually the consensus No. 1 player in his recruiting class: Duke teammate R.J. Barrett was more consistently rated higher, and Duke teammate Cam Reddish was in the mix with Williamson on most rankings. (Yes, Duke pulled the top three recruits and didn’t make the Final Four.)
The story of the NBA’s age minimum is that it hasn’t really helped a whole lot of players build fame or their NBA bonafides. But for Williamson, it really did. He would have been a top-five pick straight out of high school and, thanks to a massive social media following and extraordinarily bankable playing style, he would have signed a substantial sneaker deal regardless. Yet a season at Duke turned him into a household name among even more casual basketball fans (not just the very online) and built the endorsement case even stronger.
This — Williamson becoming the best case forthe value of the age minimum in the 13-year reign of the rule — comes as the NBA prepares to end the rule and allow players to go straight from high school to the pros again. How ironic.