The End of an Era in College Basketball

Photo: Dwight Eschliman/Getty Images

When’s the last time you, a casual-sports-fan reader of New York, thought about college basketball? When’s the last time it broke into your cultural consciousness? The NCAA tournament, surely, but that’s an evergreen: If America ever loses its obsession with filling out brackets in office pools, college basketball will have surely already been dead for years. The last time college basketball has been a part of the national conversation outside of March was last year, when then–Duke superstar Zion Williamson — in a nationally televised game so hyped that ESPN showed it live on three separate channels and the audience included Spike Lee, Ken Griffey Jr., and, oh yeah, Barack Obama, the former leader of the free world — destroyed his brand-new Nike shoe less than a minute into the game, collapsing into a heap on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor. Leave it to infamous hoophead Obama to notice what had happened before anyone else did.

That moment, in which an obvious No. 1 overall pick, a player multiple NBA teams (including the Knicks) were actively losing games in order to have the opportunity to give tens millions of dollars to just four months later, fell to the ground grasping his knee while playing for free in front of fans who paid thousands of dollars per seat to watch him, seemed to galvanize something in the collective Zeitgeist of college basketball. Williamson had been the draw of the sport all season, a monster dunking on and stomping upon the relative children of college hoops, an ongoing coming attraction for what was in store for the NBA next season. Along with teammate R.J. Barrett and Murray State’s Ja Morant, Zion revealed that modern college basketball is only notionally about 300-plus schools with their history and traditions competing for a national championship. At a fundamental level, it’s become more like an efficient highlight-film delivery device for NBA draftniks. Only college basketball nerds (like myself, I’ll admit) cared about the fact that Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally got his first national championship a year after becoming the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose in the tournament’s first round: Everyone else checked out once Zion and Duke lost in the Elite Eight. It was Zion’s year.

And since it was his year, it was also the moment when sports fans seemed to ask themselves: Wait, why exactly does a transcendent talent like Zion have to play for free for our amusement? What’s he getting out of this? It’s true that people have been discussing the morality and injustice of the big-money NCAA sports, but this was a visceral object lesson. If Zion’s knee had been as devastated as it seemed to be the moment the shoe exploded, he would have cost himself hundreds of millions in future earnings, money he would have already been earning if the NBA and the NCAA didn’t make him wait a year after high school to join the draft. He could have lost it all right there … in a sport that makes billions of dollars but doesn’t pay him a dime. Zion’s shoe explosion made college basketball, to stars like him, look not remotely worth the risk.

A year later, it’s clear the athletes have gotten the message. With the NFL winding down and the NBA entering its dog-days period (and with plummeting ratings anyway), this should be a time for college basketball to shine. But when you look around the college basketball landscape now, there are no Zions to be found. There are no Ja Morants or R.J. Barretts either. College basketball has become a sport that only breaks through when there are future NBA superstars rampaging its ranks. But those future NBA superstars, in the wake of Zion, are begging out.

Look, for example, at the current ESPN 2020 NBA Mock Draft. Of the top five picks — the cream of the crop, the future shining stars — only one of them is currently playing college basketball. Two of them, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, decided that instead of playing for free Stateside for a year, they’d head overseas and play out their one year professionally for teams in Australia and New Zealand, respectively. One, James Wiseman, signed to play for his hometown school of Memphis, but after the NCAA suspended him 11 games for a supposed “unfair benefit” (and, insanely, fined him — an unpaid player! — $11,500), he decided jumping through the NCAA hoops wasn’t worth the trouble and quit the team to prepare for June’s draft. Another, North Carolina’s Cole Anthony, had knee surgery in December and is widely considered unlikely to return to his team, which has gone 2-5 without him, when he recovers.

The only lottery prospect playing college basketball right now is Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, a local product whose signing with the Bulldogs was essentially born of a sense of charity and civic duty, as well as a hope that coach Tom Crean could groom him for the NBA the way he had Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo previously. Edwards will play his most high-profile game Tuesday night against Kentucky on ESPN, but suffice it to say, Edwards is hardly capturing the national attention that Zion did: If you tune in Tuesday, you’ll see me, a Georgia season-ticket holder, cheering on the Bulldogs courtside, but it’s a good bet Obama, Spike, and the Kid will skip the trip.

When Zion was leading Duke to the No. 1 spot in the polls and becoming so popular that Nike introduced a new shoe brand by having him wear it on national television — it was their bad luck/bad design that it exploded on impact — college basketball was ecstatic to have such a hot commodity. But in many ways, Zion and the “see future stars today!” sales pitch for college basketball was empty calories — a quick jolt of energy that disguised the total lack of long-term nutrition in the sport. College basketball has two things going for it now: its tournament and the notion that it is regularly showcasing future NBA stars. But the latter is going away, and soon. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has publicly stated that he’s getting rid of the one-and-done rule in “a few years,” and it’s very possible that next year’s draft, the 2021 version, will be the last one without high schoolers in it. (And some of the players in that draft are already floating the idea of going the Ball–Hampton route and playing their one year overseas.) This gravy train is about to end.

So, quite reasonably, those future NBA stars are hopping off. It wouldn’t be a surprise even to see Edwards decide he wants to concentrate on the draft as well, especially if Georgia falls out of contention for the NCAA tournament (the only real national showcase he’ll have). And why not? Wouldn’t you? Zion Williamson — who, it must be mentioned, has yet to appear in a regular season NBA game — could have lost everything when his shoe collapsed underneath him last year. Obama was watching. America was watching. And future NBA stars who would find themselves in Zion’s position were watching. They don’t want to find themselves in that position any more than anyone else would. So they’re begging out. If you want to watch a future NBA star in college basketball, you can watch Anthony Edwards and Georgia on Tuesday night on ESPN. But it’ll be one of your last chances, this year … and maybe ever.

The End of an Era in College Basketball