CHARLOTTE — After all the hyperventilation over a minor knee injury, the screams to “shut it down” and the conspiracy theories that took root even as the truth was there in plain sight, Duke star Zion Williamson has a message for those who doubted he would put on a college uniform again.
Duke announced Thursday that Williamson would play Thursday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals against Syracuse for the first time since Feb. 20, when the shoe explosion around the world occurred during the opening minute against North Carolina.
Duke forward Zion Williamson, right, stands next to R.J. Barrett prior to the team's game against Syracuse in February. (Photo: Mark Konezny, USA TODAY Sports)
And no matter what happens Thursday or for the rest of the season, we should all resist the urge to second-guess how the future No. 1 overall pick has decided to handle this.
Zion wants to play, so Zion should play. It’s really that simple, which means the rest of us should just sit back and enjoy the show.
Here’s the thing a lot of the “shut it down” crowd seemed to miss when the injury occurred, even as we didn’t know right away about whether it was a minor sprain or something more serious like an ACL tear.
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The supposed risk for Williamson continuing to play college basketball if healthy doesn’t really exist, at least not in the way a lot of people think about it.
At this point, given what he did the first 25 games of the season, there is practically nothing Williamson could do on the basketball court that would derail him from going No. 1 overall. Even if he suffered some kind of serious injury that meant he’d have to spend next season recovering rather than playing in NBA games, he’s so much better as a prospect than the rest of this draft class that teams would be willing to take that risk.
Moreover, basketball is not like football, where a serious injury that puts someone’s immediate future in peril is treated differently by the pros. Part of that is simply a numbers game. The difference between the best linebacker in a given draft and the 10th-best linebacker could be a matter of degrees, so teams have more incentive to pick a player whose injury history is cleaner if they’re relatively the same talent level.
In basketball, there’s only one Zion. And even for a player who has a potentially chronic problem that could limit their potential, NBA teams have to roll the dice on talent. Though Michael Porter, Jr., might have been a top-five pick had he been healthy last year, he only dropped to 14th, even with the kind of back injury that usually serves as a major red flag.
Also, the idea Williamson should have been packed in bubble wrap for six months once he established himself as the clear No. 1 pick is ludicrous.
He’s a basketball player, which means when he’s healthy, he’s going to play basketball. Whether it’s a workout or a pickup game, there’s going to be risk of landing funny or twisting a knee or breaking a bone. To suggest he shouldn’t do those things as he prepares for the draft would be akin to suggesting he shouldn’t get in a car for fear of being in an accident.
Williamson has a chance to do something special over the next month, and no matter how many people think the he should already be in the NBA or that he should be paid for what he’s doing now, he wouldn’t be coming back if this season didn’t have value to him.
That should be respected and celebrated, not questioned by those of us in the peanut gallery.
It’s also worth remembering that in a couple months, this young man’s life is about to get very complicated. For perhaps the last time in his basketball career, he’ll have an opportunity to play for nothing more than the joy of celebrating a championship with his friends. That may not be an important thing to everyone, but it’s clearly important to Williamson.
And on Thursday night, he will return to the court against Syracuse, ending all the speculation that something might be really wrong or that Duke was somehow trying to take advantage of the NCAA tournament selection committee by keeping the mystery going.
Any time Zion plays, it’s likely to be something special. As long as he has a stronger pair of shoes than last time, it should all work out just fine.
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