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Trae Young on his concern for Zion Williamson and the reality of being a star NCAA athlete

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There’s no current NBA rookie that can relate more to Zion Williamson’s popularity in college basketball than Trae Young. When Williamson went down with a scary knee injury on Wednesday night, Young spoke out immediately on Twitter about the “one-and-done” system, and the NCAA model. Here’s how his year in the limelight as an amateur was for him personally, and why he decided to play college basketball in the first place.

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ATLANTA — The projected No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Zion Williamson, sent social media into a frenzy when he broke his shoe and sprained his right knee on Wednesday night against the University of North Carolina.

Among those chiming in on the situation was Atlanta Hawks rookie guard Trae Young, who suggested that Williamson may want to stop playing altogether this season instead of hurting his draft stock by getting seriously injured, a la Bol Bol.

“It sucks seeing that with Zion,” Young told Peachtree Hoops after the Hawks’ practice on Thursday afternoon. “My first thought was, ‘is he alright?’ I’m hoping that he makes the best decision, not only for him, but for his family. I know he’s a competitor. I know he wants to hoop and play, but this kid has a bright future and he has a chance to make a lot of money playing basketball.

“The NCAA isn’t helping kids out with this decision. Depending on how bad the injury is, I think if I was him, I don’t know if I’d sit out or not.”

Young clarified that while he grew cautious with his future in mind during his one year of college, he remained competitive.

“Coming in, I played extremely hard,” Young said. “If you’re cautious to the point where you’re not playing hard in the game, then you shouldn’t be playing. For me, I was always cautious of protecting myself, making sure that I was always healthy, but at the same time, I was still playing hard. I was still trying to win, but at the same time I was definitely cautious.”

Later on Thursday afternoon, Duke announced that Williamson was progressing as expected, and that his status was day-to-day.

The injury scare has reignited the debate on whether or not NCAA student-athletes should get paid. In 2017, the NCAA generated over $1 billion in revenue for the first time ever, with no sign of slowing down.

Young emerged as one of the biggest stars in college basketball history in 2017 at the University of Oklahoma. On a daily basis, his highlights led morning sports shows and primetime television game promos. In his red-stitched No. 11 Oklahoma jersey, similar to the alumni basketball jersey shirt that is sold at the Oklahoma alumni store, Young graced the January 2018 cover of SLAM Magazine.

A national celebrity who formed friendships with Drake, Migos and LeBron James, Young wasn’t legally allowed to accept even $1 for his celebrity throughout the course of the season.

“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s definitely something that we as athletes notice, and you can’t really say too much as you’re playing college basketball. Now, we can use our voices a little bit more, but it’s tough because everybody’s making so much money off of you. It’s hard because you can only go to the movies so many times a week. You can only take your girlfriend out so many times, you can only do so many things. It’s definitely tough, but [Williamson] doesn’t have too long to where he doesn’t have to be worrying about that anymore.”

Williamson’s stardom and celebrity started in high school as a viral sensation with his jaw-dropping dunking ability. In an interview with Rolling Out last year, Williamson voiced his frustration with being labeled an amateur.

“It’s frustrating sometimes because we’re in high school, and we can’t even accept a few dollars for someone to help pay for our meal,” Williamson said. “If we do that, then we can’t even go to college, or play in college anymore. Meanwhile, someone can take a picture of me, put it on a t-shirt, go sell it for $20 and make thousands of dollars. It is frustrating sometimes, but I think it’s just one of those long runs where being patient will pay off for us.”

One proposed solutions to help solve the issue include getting rid of the NBA’s “one-and-done” rule, where professionals must be one year removed from high school to get drafted. The NBA has reportedly recently proposed to eliminate the rule, via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.

Despite being a top-25 nationally ranked five-star All-American in high school, Young said that he still needed his one season of college to prove his worth to NBA franchises.

“I wasn’t on anybody’s draft board coming out of high school,” Young said. “I was a highly-ranked player. I could’ve gone anywhere I wanted to as far as schools, but at the same time, I wasn’t touted as an NBA type of player coming out of high school. I felt like going to college was the best route for me, and it turned out to be.”

Fellow NBA rookie Luka Doncic suggested that high school graduates play in Europe for a year. It’s the path that Brandon Jennings famously took in 2008, and one that Emmanuel Mudiay took a few years later.

“For me, that didn’t play a factor at all,” Young said. “I wasn’t going overseas to play basketball.”

New options in America have emerged as other ways coveted prospects can get paid in their gap year after high school. Prospect can either play in the G League for a year, or join the JBA, the league launched by LaVar Ball to exploit the one-and-done model. While Young has been supportive of the Ball family in the past, he said that he would’ve declined an invitation to the league if it existed when he was a senior.

“Nah, that’s not for me,” Young said. “The JBA’s not for me. What they’re doing as a family is great. It’s tremendous, actually to be doing what they’re doing at a successful rate, it’s great, but the JBA’s not for me.”

The Duke men’s basketball team have five regular season games remaining before the ACC Tournament, with the NCAA Tournament beginning on March 19.