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Original Issue

STUCK IN PEL

While the NBA's veteran stars wield a great deal of clout, not even the expected No. 1 pick, ZION WILLIAMSON, can escape a system that suppresses the salaries of draftees and limits their mobility for almost a decade

THIS MONTH Zion Williamson will arrive in the NBA as the most powerful teenager the league has seen since LeBron James in 2003. He will be the number one pick in the draft, he will likely sign the largest shoe contract ever for a rookie, and when he arrives at NBA summer league in Las Vegas, his first exhibition game will likely be broadcast all over the world.

All that magnetism is a credit to unprecedented power on the court as well. In case you were living under a rock during the five-month college basketball season, the 6'7", 285-pound Williamson has the body of an NFL linebacker and the athleticism to dunk his way through entire teams. "When a kid is bigger than everyone but also faster than everyone—that only happens in middle school," an NBA scout says. "And with Zion."

Spin the discussion forward, though, and any discussion of Williamson's power becomes more complicated. For all the leverage wielded by veteran NBA stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the NBA's modern era, Zion and his fellow draft picks remain tethered to a collectively-bargained system that can limit their mobility for nearly a decade.

Today's NBA first-rounders are paid according to predetermined salary slots set forth by the CBA. Last year's top pick, Deandre Ayton, got $8.1 million, the No. 2 got $7.3 million, and so on. Near the end of his four-year rookie deal every young superstar has a choice: Sign for a massive extension, as shooting guard Devin Booker did in Phoenix last summer (five years, $158 million); play through to the end of deal and become a restricted free agent (at which point incumbent teams can match any offer with a binding long-term contract); or accept a one-year qualifying offer and become a free agent in year five.

For Williamson, 19, that would mean signing a $17.6 million one-year deal in year five or something along the lines of Booker's extension. Under the current CBA, no young player has turned down the generational wealth that comes with a max extension. Players are bound to their teams by golden handcuffs, essentially. This is why, whenever people suggest that the Pelicans trade the top pick, they're reminded that the team would be passing up the chance at eight years with Zion.

Williamson remained tight-lipped early in the process. In the weeks following the lottery his family's lone statement came in mid-May, when his stepfather, Lee Anderson, told ESPN Radio, "Zion has always been taught, 'You accept the things that you can't change and change the things that you can change.' It's the process of the NBA. Certainly, we're excited about the Crescent City."

Still, the Pelicans are likely to trade away star Anthony Davis, who demanded to be dealt midway through last season, and now New Orleans lives at the intersection of some of the modern era's knottiest ironies. For all the power enjoyed by stars like Davis and James, who negotiated CBA changes that assured veterans would retain eligibility for four- and five-year max contracts well into their 30s, Zion and his Pelicans teammates may feel differently about the benefits of star leverage. "NBA players do a terrific job of sacrificing for one another to help the game," ESPN's Jalen Rose says of the talks that animate these considerations. But, Rose concedes, "seven to eight years [of team control over a young star], I think that's overall too long. It's going to be interesting to see how that plays out in the next CBA."

Until then, the world can look to New Orleans for a reminder that not all power is distributed equally.