With one explosive move in the opening moments of Duke vs North Carolina on Wednesday, Feb. 20, and a ruined sneaker in its wake, Zion Williamson instantly changed the dynamics of his inevitable signing of a Nike endorsement deal. Up until that moment, inking with the brand was as foregone of a conclusion as the powerhouse forward being drafted first overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.
The stock price drop and internet slander was more hyperbole than anything else, but the damage had been done, and the seed of doubt was planted. Signing Zion Williamson as soon as humanly possible was unquestionably a top priority for Nike—the only real unknown was the size of the bag he’d secure from the company—but Zion’s shoe calling it quits at an inopportune moment sabotaged the brand’s leverage and opened the door for a usurper.
Until Williamson was injured by from what all accounts was the freak failure of one Nike PG 2.5 PE, Nike held all the chips. Despite other brands boasting elite players—James Harden is running with Adidas, Steph Curry is splashing for Under Armour (although it's worth mentioning that both men were previously Nike athletes)—it’s no leap to say inking a Nike contract is the supplemental bonus to the dream of having Adam Silver call your name on Draft Day. With a roster that includes LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, and Kyrie Irving, it would have appeared that Williamson was choosing cash money over rolling with the NBA’s elite if he were to have ultimately not signed with the Swoosh.
However, thanks to that one ill-fated Paul George sneaker, consumers, social media commenters, and even an off-brand like Skechers ended up cracking jokes at Nike’s expense. While Williams choosing another brand could still lead to whispers of greed over greatness by fans, now the narrative could potentially be spun into, "That brand’s shoes aren’t built tough enough for the kid, so he chose us." It doesn't matter that James, who is built like a speedy Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, never had shoe malfunctions so spectacularly on national TV—history and facts don’t apply to false perceptions or hot takes.
Nevertheless, recent memory proves it would behoove Nike brand to lock in the next potential NBA icon for the long term—and fast. James famously turned down more money from Adidas to link with Nike. Like James, Williamson has the chance to be a generational talent. There is no debate on who’s getting picked first this year as opposed to more recent drafts (remember Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball or Jayson Tatum?). With all the exceptional and freakish physical tools he possesses, Williamson’s ceiling is his desire to put in the work and his own imagination.
It’s a potential goldmine for Nike to have Williamson in their shoes. He’s a walking advertisement and all eyes will be on him. It would be a PR nightmare to have Williamson curve the brand for a competitor. It would amount to a vote of no confidence, with said competition sure to play that up in potential ad campaigns. It would be in Nike’s best interest to not only sign him—no matter the cost—but to lock him up longterm.
Watching Williamson play right now could be a glimpse into future of the NBA for at least the next decade. Nike doesn't have the luxury of testing the waters like they did with Irving, George, or Durant. The brand would look crazy if he bolts (assuming he pans out) in the same fashion as Curry and Harden, if they tendered him a short-term contract.
Reebok got plenty of side eyes when they signed a young Allen Iverson to a lifetime deal. Now their risky play looks genius and is surely keeping Iverson afloat.
Securing Williamson doesn’t seem so much precarious as prudent. With the NCAA tournament just starting, the price of his devotion is only going to get higher with each round. Nike, whatever the number Team Williamson will be demanding despite a so far non-existent NBA resume, just cut the check.