NBA, NBA Draft, NCAA, NCAA Basketball

Zion Williamson goes pro and Coach K is fine with it

Zion Williamson has become the latest Duke player to play a season for the Blue Devils as a way station to the NBA Draft and Coach K is OK with it all.

To the surprise of absolutely no one in the basketball world, Duke University freshman Zion Williamson declared Monday for the NBA Draft.

Williamson becomes the third Duke freshman to declare for the draft this year, with R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish already having done so, running the total of players to come to Duke, spend a semester-plus on campus and head to the NBA at 19.

For those who have followed basketball for longer than a few years, it’s still startling to see players come and go at Duke like a revolving door.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski has seen much of the changes in college basketball, considering he just completed his 39th season as Duke’s head coach.

Twenty years ago, in 1999, the college basketball world was absolutely rocked by the news that sophomores Elton Brand and William Avery, along with freshman Corey Maggette, were going to skip their remaining eligibility at Duke and declare for the NBA Draft.

It was earth-shattering.

Why? Because in what had been 19 seasons at Duke for Coach K, and for the years prior to that when underclassmen were allowed to declare some sort of “hardship” to opt to enter the draft early, the Blue Devils had never had a player leave early.

Not Christian Laettner, not Mike Gminski, not Bobby Hurley or Grant Hill. All of them stayed four years (or five) on the Durham campus.

But Coach K has swung 180 degrees now. He’s learned how to work the one-and-done culture (because NBA-age-limit-of-19 doesn’t have the same flow as one-and-done) and along with John Calipari at Kentucky has become a master at it.

The Duke program rolls over a few strong freshmen every year and just keeps rolling along. if anything, Coach K has managed the transitions better than Calipari, who has had some down years along the way with the Wildcats.

The Blue Devils have had one season with double-digit losses in the last 12, when they were 25-11 and were knocked out in the Sweet 16 in 2015-16, a year after a freshman-laden group led by Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow led the Blue Devils to their most recent national title.

With the NBA in serious discussions to lower the age limit back to 18, the one-and-done rule is being championed by a man who would have been the least likely to be a defender of early exits … Mike Krzyzewski, the coach who didn’t have a player leave early for nearly two decades.

In an interview with ESPN’s David M. Hale last month, Krzyzewski said the college game is not ready for a change at this point.

“The NBA will be well prepared,” Krzyzewski said. “The NCAA is not prepared right now. They need to be in concert with the NBA in developing a plan that is specific for men’s college basketball. And that should include what an athlete gets, how he’s been taken care of, whether or not there’s a re-entry if something — really, it’s deep. And if we only look at it shallow, then we’re doing a disservice to the kids.”

Give Coach K some credit … at least he steered clear of the ridiculous “student-athlete” term coined by then-NCAA director Walter Byers in the 1950s when families of injured and disabled athletes were attempting to collect worker’s compensation from schools.

Saying an avenue for players with the talent to do so to skip the student charade and start earning a living with their ability could be a “disservice to the kids” rings sort of hollow in an age where the NCAA rakes in billions (with a “B”) of dollars in television rights, advertising partnerships and other business deals and the players still get punished if they take a cheeseburger from the wrong person.

The earliest the NBA would make a change to the draft rules is 2022. That would give the NCAA — if the Association and its players’ union can strike a deal as soon as Commissioner Adam Silver would like — at least two years to get its house in order.

The transformation of Duke from an institution where everyone stayed through their entire period of eligibility to being a bus station between high school and the pros is college basketball in microcosm.

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A sport still clinging to a hopelessly outdated model that benefits mostly old guys in suits and ties and nothing for the young ones in the sneakers and cleats, whether they explode during games or not.

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