The biggest story of this week’s NBA Draft lottery was the Knicks losing out on Zion Williamson because everything revolves around New York, according to New York.
Much of the rest of the nation delighted in Knicks fans’ misery, in Stephen A. Smith’s bombastic incredulity, in all of the videos and Tweets and GIFs of anger, sadness and disbelief. (Miami Heat fans especially reveled, their dislike of NYK dating to the rivalry going en fuego circa 1997-2000). The poor Knickerbockers spend the whole season tanking, carefully crafting the league’s worst record, only to find the tank empty of the one player it wanted. And America brayed laughter.
The real story of this draft, though, is where Zion Williamson ended up, not where he didn’t.
And what’s next.
Williamson, the sensational 18-year-old Duke forward called the draft’s biggest, most marketable prize since LeBron James, was headed to New Orleans when the lucky Pelicans leaped to No. 1 in the lottery over six teams with greater mathematical odds.
But would he remain a Pelican? Might he return to Duke? Could he force a trade? A tsunami of speculation ensued.
Chances all along were that Williamson would respect the draft and begin his career in NOLA, though clearly he wanted to go to New York as most thought he would. Big Apple for Big Easy was not a swap he preferred. The New York stage to the NBA’s second-smallest market was not a step down he envisioned. As ESPN’s Rachel Nichols put it that night, Williamson “looked like he’d been hit by a truck” as the Pelicans won the lottery, won him.
The idea Williamson will end up on the Bayou, after all, became a bit more likely Thursday morning when the player’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, appeared on the Off The Bench radio show in Baton Rouge, called Zion “excited about the prospect of getting down there and getting settled,” adding that returning to Duke “is not something that we have even considered.”
Stepdad might be right. Stepdad might not speak for Zion. We’re not sure.
What we do know is that the lottery ping-pong balls did not bounce the way Williamson prefers, and he has options. He has power here. With LeBron James and Kevin Durant at the forefront, players wield more control than we see in other sports. And the possibility of Zion exercising that muscle has been he talk of the NBA.
OPTION 1: Williamson could return to Duke. He has until June 10 (10 days before the NBA Draft) to decide. He remains eligible to return to college because he has not yet signed with an agent and he has not yet signed a sneaker deal.
OPTION 2: He could leverage the threat of returning to Duke to force the Pelicans to trade him to a preferred destination, a leverage that would all but disappear after June 10 if he elected to not return to Duke. (Eli Manning did something similar in the 2004 NFL Draft, selected by the San Diego Chargers, making it clear he would not play for them, and forcing a trade to the Giants).
OPTION 3: Williamson could withdraw from the draft, again, by June 10. Instead of returning to Duke he could spend the next year working out on his own, joining Team USA, playing overseas, whatever, then re-enter the 2020 draft. Here again, though, he’d have no assurance of what team would get him a year from now.
Any of these options would turn Williamson from the most beloved basketball star in New Orleans since Pistol Pete Marovich to a forever-villain in the city. It would also cast him, depending on one’s view, as either a selfish star quaking the very foundation of the NBA — or a young man simply exercising his power and his rights.
What’s likely: Forget a return to Duke. Forget him sitting out a year and losing a season of his prime and all that money to gamble on the lottery a year from now.
He will leverage the Pelicans to trade the No. 1 pick prior to the draft, or stay put and insist he never wanted to play anywhere else, with pretty close odds on either happening.
The overarching point is that Zion Williamson has that leverage and power. He has the right to try to have a say in where he will live and launch his career.
Professional leagues should be worried, because their drafts -- so fundamental to who they are and how they run their business -- can be manipulated by athletes who have the greatness and the gumption to claim the power, and every right to do so.