Next Thursday night, on a stage inside Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will walk to a microphone and announce to the world something we’ve known would happen pretty much since last November — specifically that Zion Williamson will be the first pick of the 2019 NBA Draft.
There is no mystery here.
Williamson established himself as the prize of this draft very early in the 2018-19 college basketball season and never did a thing to make anybody move off of him. He was sensational from start to finish, basically without exception, so much so that when he blew out his Nike and suffered a knee injury in February, the consensus was that even if it were a torn ACL, which it obviously wasn’t, Williamson would still go No. 1.
So Williamson will go No. 1.
And then the one-and-done star from Duke will enter the NBA with more hype than any prospect since LeBron James back in 2003. But here’s the question: Is he worth it? Is Zion Williamson worth all the hype?
Truth be told, that’s a secondary question, at least to me, because the hype alone is worth so much. Millions and millions, in fact. It’s why even if it were a close call about whom should go No. 1 — and, by the way, I don’t believe it is — the Pelicans would still basically have no choice but to select Williamson first because, at the end of the day, they’re running a business. And Zion Williamson is GREAT for business.
A source told CBS Sports this week that the Pelicans have sold roughly 4,000 season-ticket packages since winning the NBA Draft lottery and securing the No. 1 pick less than a month ago. That accounts for more than 22% of the seats inside the Smoothie King Center. Simply put, no other draft pick, and very few free agents, could impact attendance in a similar manner. And when you combine that with what Williamson will add in terms of national television and social media exposure, again, he’s worth the hype because the hype is worth a lot.
“Zion’s value comes from his ability to create an economic impact for his partners,” Chris Grancio, chief marketing officer at Independent Sports & Entertainment, told Sports Business Daily back in March. “For whatever team that drafts him, that’s potential for increased ticket and merchandise sales, more sponsorship, heightened ratings and web and social media traffic. All things that have the potential to significantly increase the bottom line.”
Needless to say, the next step in the process will be becoming an impactful professional basketball player because, unless he does, the hype that will accompany Williamson into the NBA will slowly, but definitely, fade. (I mean, when’s the last time you heard anybody raving about Lonzo Ball?) But here’s the good news: There really is no obvious reason, barring injuries, of course, to think Williamson will be anything less than the star so many are projecting him to become because, keep in mind, we’re not just talking about a great prospect; he’s already shown himself to also be a great player — evidence being that he was the CBS Sports National Player of the Year after finishing his freshman season with a Player Efficiency Rating of 42.55, which was nearly five points higher than anybody else’s (and easily the best of the past decade).
And he’s still only 18 years old.
In a different era, Williamson being an undersized power forward with only a 6-foot-10 wingspan might be a concern. But with the NBA now largely being position-less, and going smaller, it’s not. And the focus instead is on the fact that he’s a 6-7, 285-pound athlete who is uniquely built, uniquely explosive and uniquely nimble. He can dribble. He can pass. He can shoot. He’s a difference-maker on both ends of the court. And it’s reasonable to suggest no person his height and weight on the planet — not just basketball player, but person — can run and jump and move the way Williamson can run and jump and move.
Bottom line, I’m a believer.
Will Zion Williamson ever be recognized as the best player in the world like the last prospect to enter the NBA with this much hype (King James) was eventually labeled? I don’t know. That’s obviously an incredibly high bar to set. But, that said, there’s really no reason to think he can’t become that (other than that it’s nearly impossible to become that). So the Pelicans should be, and are, thrilled to be in this position.
Zion Williamson has already changed their franchise.
That makes him worth the hype.
The fun part will be watching him try to live up to it.