Zion Williamson, Ja Morant face unexpected crossroads as NBA Draft arrives

OPINION: The troubled NBA stars serve as the latest cautionary tales for young, up-and-coming players who become rich and famous without effective guardrails.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

There’s no drama surrounding who’ll go No. 1 in the NBA draft Thursday when San Antonio will select French teenager Victor Wembanyama. He’ll instantly become a leading figure in the league, joining international fixtures Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic. 

For real intrigue, consider the plight of two American-born stars, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant and New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson. 

Each is a potential “face of the league” who right now risks ridicule and derision when they step out in public. We never imagined such a shameful turn of events when Williamson and Morant went 1-2 in the 2019 draft. In the blink of four years, they’ve become All-Star ballers at unexpected crossroads.

You might see their recent indiscretions as youthful mistakes, but being young isn’t necessarily followed by being dumb. There are levels of stupid behavior at every stage of life. But certain individuals tend to max out, be they anonymous Joes or well-known celebrities. 

Dillon Brooks #24 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers of Game Five of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at FedExForum on April 26, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

We can’t excuse Morant for playing with guns (and/or toy guns) because he’s “only” 23 years old. Tamir Rice was half that age with a toy gun when a Cleveland cop shot and killed him. If Morant actually brandished a lighter gun on Instagram, instead of a gun-gun, I’d tack five more games on his suspension, extra credit for acing an AP class in tomfoolery. 

Waving a fake weapon doesn’t lessen the imagery’s disturbing impact.

Waving something else appears to be a reason for Williamson’s embarrassing headlines. 

It began with a sweet gender reveal party with his girlfriend but morphed into an ugly social media attack from a porn star with more than a million followers on Twitter. Moriah Mills harassed Williamson for two weeks and then threatened to release sex tapes involving him before Twitter suspended her account Tuesday.

Williamson, 22, certainly isn’t the first star to experience drama with a current or former partner. “If you think this is a one-off in the NBA, you’re very wrong,” 2015 NBA champ Andrew Bogut said Monday. “This is a common occurrence on many teams.” However, the development is another reason to question Williamson’s overall judgment, which already seemed iffy. 

He’s been mesmerizing when he plays — averaging 25.8 points and seven rebounds while shooting 60% from the floor — but that’s hardly ever. Injuries have limited him to just 114 out of a possible 308 regular-season games. Worse than suffering physical ailments, he’s made us wonder about his professionalism, maturity and dedication to fitness. 

It doesn’t help when he’s dragged by a sex worker who’s 10 years older and spills his dirt. “Better pray I’m not pregnant too because I’m definitely late @Zionwilliamson” Mills tweeted when the happy couple shared their big news.

Williamson and Morant are perfect candidates to be guest celebrities in a Southwest Airlines commercial: “Wanna get away?” 

A fresh start elsewhere would do each player good, providing blank slates to move forward in a new market. Both have been mentioned in trade rumors lately, particularly Williamson, whose injury history makes him a greater risk from a basketball standpoint. Morant’s history of thuggish behavior in public and private is the greatest risk for his would-be suitors.

Whether they stay put or are traded, ample work is required to repair their reputations. They serve as the latest cautionary tales for teens who become rich and famous without effective guardrails, internally or externally. Though generational wealth is secured through league and sponsorships contracts totaling nine figures, their development into responsible adulthood is far from guaranteed. 

Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans reacts during the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on January 02, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Despite the extra-large bags — each has a $193 million NBA contract that can reach up to $231 million — the young men’s lives aren’t great at the moment. They’ve been roasted for their judgment and decision-making, their attitude and approach to stardom. They were destined to be poster boys, just not this sort.

“I’ve had time to reflect and I realize how much hurt I’ve caused, Morant said after receiving his suspension. “I’m sorry for the harm I’ve done.”

Williamson hasn’t commented publicly on any messiness with women. But at an event in New Orleans this week, his stepfather, Anderson Lee said “Believe half of what you see and nothing you hear. … I stand by my son one hundred percent.”

Standing with a troubled young athlete isn’t the question; it’s what you do with that proximity. The folks closest to Williamson and Morant are part of the problem if they’re simply an amen chorus to foolishness. On the other hand, supporters can offer perfectly sound counsel and none of it matters when the player refuses to listen. 

After the draft, the partying and the news conference in their new home city, budding superstars are primed to succeed or stumble into an abyss. They can heed good advice and take personal pride in becoming a respectable pro or they can derail their career by yielding to base instincts and self-destructive impulses.

Williamson and Morant have reached that fork in the journey, which might include a change of address. Regardless of their uniform colors, choosing the right path is up to them.

No one else can do it on their behalf.

Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.

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