Understanding Zion Williamson Through the Eyes of the NHL's No. 1 Pick-in-Waiting

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PLYMOUTH, Mich. — The presumptive No. 1 overall pick in this June’s draft sits down to talk, before a team meeting and weight training and a life of fame and fortune. He has just recovered from a midseason injury. He has nothing to gain, financially, from finishing his season. But Jack Hughes keeps playing hockey, in college arenas and small towns and next month, in Sweden for the world championships. The games are not just games to him now. They are the last morsels of the life he will leave. He wants to savor them all.

Someday, even the most passionate hockey fans will forget Hughes played for the U.S. National Developmental Under-18 Team. Only a few people watched him bounce around the country this year, playing college teams like Notre Dame and Michigan and Ferris State and Dartmouth. He is not improving his financial outlook by playing. He did not increase his endorsement potential. He is not building what anybody would refer to as a “legacy.” Still, he says, “I’m kind of cherishing it, kind of enjoying each moment and each game.”

Hughes does not know Zion Williamson personally. He will not speak for him. He does not presume to know what Zion’s life is like. But maybe, indirectly, he can help us understand him.

On the evening of Feb. 20, Zion Williamson made the leap from renowned athlete to national debate topic. It did not take long. Surely you’ve seen the highlight: Williamson, Duke’s star freshman, planted his left foot and tried to dribble to the right. Instead, he tore apart his Nike and injured his knee. Hughes is a big sports fan. He watched it on his phone. “He blew through a shoe,” Hughes says. “That’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen that before, I don’t think. That was crazy.”

Almost immediately, Williamson became the prism through which we argue about amateur sports. His coach, Mike Krzyzewski, makes at least $7 million per year. Duke brings in much more. Even if you add up tuition, room and board, free equipment, use of the gym and the value of every seat on every flight on every private plane, Zion Williamson is getting paid a tiny fraction of what he is worth.

And so there were those who said, understandably, that Zion Williamson should not even try to come back, that he had nothing to gain, that his sole focus should be on protecting his status as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

But Williamson will come back. Publicly, at least, there is no indication that he ever considered anything else. And the more you think about it, the more you realize that the argument was never really about Zion Williamson. We weaponized his college career for the purposes of debate. There was really nothing Williamson could do to change the system, anyway. If he sat out, the NCAA tournament would go on.

One can make a completely sensible argument about college players being allowed to control, and profit off of, their names, images and likenesses. But Zion Williamson is not the best example to use. He will make tens of millions of dollars in his career; he will be fine. Changing the rules would not change the trajectory of his life.

Even if Williamson blows out his knee, he’ll still be a top-five pick and will sign a huge shoe contract. This doesn’t mean Williamson should keep playing. It means he should do whatever is right for him at this point in his life.

And what he wants, apparently, is the same thing Jack Hughes wants: to make the most of this year, before everything changes, before he has teammates who are 15 years older than he is and so much money that some of them will be jealous. Amateur sports on the collegiate level may be illogical and maybe even kind of gross, but they also have value. There is a reason some likely first-round picks return to school, and many outgoing senior football players play in bowl games that the rest of us have declared meaningless. You only get to be young once.

Williamson and Hughes will make a lot of money and compete on a higher level. But this is their last chance to play on a team they chose, with teammates their age who all chose to be there, too.

Just as Williamson wants to win a national championship, Hughes has a goal: he wants to win the U-18 world championship. He is playing with as many as seven other first-round picks. It’s the end of the beginning for all of them. They will never have a year like this again.

“We’re all the same age, we’re all going through draft year together and we have a really good team,” Hughes says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Last fall, when the NHL season started, Hughes found himself checking the standings every week. Elite draft prospects tend to read the standings like the rest of us read restaurant bills: from the bottom up. Now, he says: “I really don’t (look). I have kind of an understanding of who is near the bottom of the barrel, but all I got to do is worry about me and keep playing. The first month I was probably just thinking about the draft too much. For me I had to dial in and just think, ‘This is my last year of playing with these guys. I should enjoy each and every moment, every practice, every game.’”

Hughes injured his ankle this winter, after he had seemingly solidified himself as the best prospect in this draft. Staying away drove him a little nuts. He was so happy to return. He has a championship to chase, skills to improve, and friendships that have already been forged.

“It’s my last year playing here at the program, playing with all my best buddies, because then we go our separate ways,” Hughes said.

When we first pick up a stick or a ball or a glove, we are all amateurs. A miniscule percentage of us will ever get paid to play a sport. Hughes considers himself very lucky to be one of those. He is looking forward to playing in the NHL.

But he does not want to skip ahead.

Hughes has heard the Zion debate. But ask him what Zion should do, and he says, “I have no clue. He’s in a different ballpark than any of us. It’s up to him. I could see him coming back, but I could also see him sitting out the year.”

The NHL and NBA lotteries will help shape the lives of Zion Williamson and Jack Hughes. But maybe you can understand why they are enjoying this time. There is more to life than waiting to see wins the lottery.

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