“Decision is torment for anyone with imagination. When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can.” — Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore
College basketball barely contained Zion Williamson. These days more than half the lottery is composed of one-and-done prospects, but Zion belongs in a special class alongside Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and Derrick Rose as a freshman who almost immediately revealed his participation in amateur athletics as a farce. Like, this guy could start for a number of NBA playoff teams. What was he doing at Duke?
For Zion’s part, he wasn’t indignant about the millions of dollars he lost out on during his eight months in Durham. He seemed to genuinely enjoy being a Blue Devil. Putting aside the fact that Cameron Indoor is filled to the brim with future corporate lawyers and right wing economists, it is a fitfully loud and intoxicating place to play basketball, and Zion enlivened that incorrigible crowd every bit as much as J.J. Redick or Christian Laettner ever did. He gave them everything he could. After he sprained his knee against North Carolina in February, he would have been well within his rights to shut it down for the season, sign with an agent, and start getting ready for the next level, but he came back because he didn’t want to leave R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish behind. He was eager to see how far they could go together in the big dance.
If your eyes are fixed on what Zion is going to do in a Knicks or Cavs jersey this fall, and you rightfully loathe the NCAA because it uses a special talent like his to make money he doesn’t get to see, it’s easy to minimize his failure to help Duke to the Final Four, but Zion himself was evidently crushed by his team’s loss to Michigan State, and that’s real. He shouldn’t be a pawn in a broader argument. He’s 18 years old and has never been particularly interested in what he stands for or the labor politics that swirl around him. That’s probably a good thing. Better to be just an athlete at Zion’s age. There’ll be plenty of time for world-weariness in the future, and knowing the squall of complex nonsense that will greet him the day after he gets drafted, plenty of stuff that will weary him.
Definitely finished with Duke but not yet attached to any NBA team, he would do well to make sure the insurance company gets their checks on time and savor his liminal state. There’s one more weekend of NCAA tournament, and once that’s over, the NBA playoffs will burn up most of the basketball internet’s oxygen. The pre-draft hype machine won’t achieve its annual jet engine pitch until the Combine in mid-May. There is a brief window, here, for Zion to find a gym he likes and disappear. Get some shots up during the day, spend the evenings with family and friends. Make no news. Live at least a little bit like a civilian, before everything gets inescapably weird.
Zion hasn’t gotten to make many decisions in his career, and he still won’t even a few years from now. He had to play college ball, so he chose one of the handful of schools where players of his caliber hoop for a single season. He’ll be ushered into the NBA by whichever franchise wins the lottery. He’ll be paid a set figure, and then the team that drafts him will have considerable power to coerce him into signing a second contract once his rookie deal runs out. This isn’t altogether fair, but it’s the law of land. Anthony Davis is just now forcing his way out of New Orleans. He’s nearing the end of his seventh professional season.
It’s tempting to wonder what true freedom would look like for Zion Williamson, what he would do with his talents if he could apply them more freely, but that’s a far-off fantasy. The one-and-done rule might be in its waning days, but the draft and restricted free agency aren’t going anywhere. The National Basketball Players’ Association can only fight the owners on so many issues, and the union’s player reps are typically long-tenured veterans who aren’t terribly concerned with the liberty or earning power of teenagers. Zion can rage against this or simply focus on his basketball. That he has so far chosen the latter option is his prerogative. It is at least the less frustrating path.
That Penelope Fitzgerald line at the top comes from a novel about people who live on boats docked in the Thames. It’s a book filled with characters who are struggling for autonomy and asserting what scant amount of self-determination they possess in clumsy and sometimes destructive ways. They’ve all arrived on the river by methods not entirely clear, not because they can’t trace the verifiable series of events but because it’s difficult to say exactly what leads anyone to a certain point in their lives. There are always forces beyond us—clear, indirect, and mysterious—that influence our direction and narrow our choices. All you can really do is make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in. Zion Williamson has done that so far, and there’s nothing to indicate he won’t continue to. He’s gleeful and gifted and poised—more than well-equipped for whatever comes next, whatever say he’s got in it.