The Zion Williamson sweepstakes will finally be decided on Tuesday night, when the NBA Draft Lottery determines which team earns the right to draft a player considered the most transformational basketball prospect since LeBron James.
Williamson is a virtual lock to be the first player taken in this summer’s NBA Draft after a dominant freshman season at Duke University. At just 19 years old, Williamson became a media sensation, earning national college player of the year honors while leading the Blue Devils deep into the NCAA Tournament.
The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns all have equal 14 percent odds of earning the first overall pick, though any of the 14 teams who did not make the playoffs have a chance. While Williamson should be a star on the court, he is also expected to provide an instant financial boost to whichever NBA team leaves Chicago on Tuesday night with the first pick.
“Whichever team wins the lottery and is able to land Zion Williamson will undoubtedly see a nice initial bump in interest that will translate into higher local TV ratings, more national TV appearances, more interest among sponsors, and an enhanced ability to sell season ticket packages,” said Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 285 pounds, Williamson first captured national attention for his high-flying dunks and freakish athleticism. Aside from a likely boost to their television ratings and ticket sales, Williamson’s eventual NBA home will gain one of the sport’s biggest stars on social media. He has more than 3 million followers on Instagram alone, where his highlights regularly go viral.
Williamson’s popularity fueled a spike in ticket prices for Duke basketball games, which reached Super Bowl-level prices on the secondary market when the Blue Devils played the archrivals North Carolina Tar Heels in February. When Williamson hurt his knee due to an exploding Nike sneaker, public criticism was so intense that Nike issued an apologetic statement and, eventually, crafted a custom shoe for him to wear.
A rematch between the two teams during the ACC Tournament drew ESPN’s highest TV rating on record for a college basketball game.
A budding marketing star, Williamson is also expected to garner massive interest from sponsors once he turns pro, especially among sports apparel brands. Last month, legendary sneaker industry executive Sonny Vaccaro said Williamson could earn a sneaker deal worth as much as $100 million from Nike, Adidas or one of the other companies expected to bid for his services.
“In my lifetime, I think it’s going to be the biggest bidding war ever done,” Vaccaro told ESPN.
While Williamson will provide an immediate boost in exposure for the team that drafts him, sustained growth depends on his performance on the court. Interest could quickly fade if Williamson fails to live up to expectations, according to Jensen.
“As we’ve seen with a lot of recent high draft picks who only spent a year in school, Zion may not be a panacea, and in the end his ability to adapt to the NBA game and the surrounding cast will determine whether his addition improves the team long-term and gets them back into the playoffs on an annual basis,” Jensen said. “Only then will his true impact be known.”
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The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery airs Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.