Zion Williamson signed a $75 million shoe deal before ever playing an NBA game. It could represent the biggest emerging threat to teams in today's NBA.

Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesZion Williamson’s shoe deal is reportedly the biggest for a rookie in NBA history.

  • Zion Williamson signed with Jordan Brand for the largest shoe deal ever for an NBA rookie, according to a report.
  • In an era of player empowerment, some have wondered if players will begin playing on the one-year qualifying offer early in their careers so they can have unrestricted free agency earlier.
  • With the top players making more money off the court than on it, stars are able to turn down money to choose where they want to play.
  • There is nothing to suggest Williamson wants to leave New Orleans, but rising NBA salaries, plus his massive shoe deal and talent, put the situation in play.
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As the NBA world ponders what’s next in an era of increasing player power, Zion Williamson’s shoe deal with Jordan Brand could serve as a worst-case scenario.

On Tuesday, it was announced that Williamson partnered with Jordan Brand to create his first signature shoe. Adam Zagoria reported the deal was worth $US75 million over seven years, the second-biggest shoe deal ever for a rookie, behind only LeBron James. However, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Wednesday reported that the deal extends five years, making it the richest shoe deal for a rookie in NBA history.

ESPN’s Nick DePaula reported that other companies were offering deals worth over $US10 million annually, while The Action Network’s Darren Rovell reported that Williamson turned down more money from other companies.

Williamson has yet to suit up for a real game for the New Orleans Pelicans, who unexpectedly landed the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft and took the Duke superstar. Williamson made a brief appearance at Summer League in Las Vegas but was shut down after one game with knee soreness.

While it will sound dramatic – and there is nothing to suggest that Williamson has an exit from New Orleans on his mind – in today’s NBA, the Pelicans may now be on the clock. Williamson’s shoe deal could be a reason.

The next step in the player-empowerment era

This NBA season saw players take their futures into their hands like never before. Anthony Davis requested a trade with over a year left on his contract. Months later, Paul George requested a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder with at least two full years left on his deal.

Elsewhere, superstars like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler took less money to join other teams in free agency. Leonard signed just a three-year deal with an opt-out after the second year with the Los Angeles Clippers. He could dip his toes back into free agency in two years.

Read more: NBA free agency has exploded. Here are the biggest signings so far and the best remaining players.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote that the NBA is “reckoning post-Kawhi with what the endgame of player empowerment might look like.” Lowe wondered if players could choose to gamble on themselves earlier in their careers to have some power over where they play.

Typically, a player hits restricted free agency after their fourth year in the league. A team can match any offer another team makes that player. Restricted free agency can stagnate a player’s market – rival teams know that player’s team will match any reasonable offer. It might take a giant overpay to lure a player away.

Players have the option to play on the one-year qualifying offer in their fifth season to become an unrestricted free agent the following summer. Most don’t take it. Doing so means passing up a potential long-term payday. It also comes with risk. What if that player suffers a devastating injury while playing on the qualifying offer, and they never get the chance to sign a long-term contract?

But with NBA salaries growing and a surplus of off-court money for some players, the next step could be players taking the fifth-year qualifying offer – a one-year deal – to become an unrestricted free agent the following year.

Lowe wrote:

When will a superstar coming off his rookie deal sign the one-year qualifying offer – allowing him to enter unrestricted free agency after his fifth season and signalling his intention to leave?

Qualifying offers are getting huge now – into the $US15 million-plus range for top draft picks. That is about half of what those players could earn in that one season by signing new long-term max contracts, but it’s life-changing money. What if a player really wants out? What if he has a huge shoe deal?

It’s not completely unheard of – Greg Monroe played on the qualifying offer for the Detroit Pistons in 2014-15 to become an unrestricted free agent the next summer.

Kristaps porzingisOmar Vega/Getty ImagesKristaps Porzingis chose not to play on the qualifying offer.

Many players won’t take the risk. Kristaps Porzingis reportedly threatened to take the qualifying offer after he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. But coming off a torn ACL that cost him an entire season, Porzingis instead signed a five-year $US158 million contract with the Mavericks this summer.

Lowe’s point about a major shoe deal potentially affecting a player’s decision coincides with (ironically) what new the Pelicans general manager David Griffin told Wojnarowski on a podcast earlier this month. Griffin said some players make so much money off the court that they can afford to leave money on the table to join other teams or take shorter deals.

“In most cases, the supermax players that have been moving are also signature shoe guys,” Griffin said. “They have their own shoe. They have their own brand. They have their own line. They’re making enough money that they can take risks players didn’t used to take.”

Griffin said that when James played on the Cleveland Cavaliers the second time, he played on a string of one-year deals. James then had leverage because he could afford to turn down money.

“With some of these guys, that comes into play as well,” Griffin said. “They’re willing to take a chance on a year-to-year deal because they can.”

Zion williamson pelicansSarah Stier/Getty ImagesWilliamson.

Again, this isn’t to suggest that Williamson already has an exit on his mind or would even risk playing on the qualifying offer. But such a historic shoe deal puts the scenario in play, and others could follow.

Williamson – assuming he lives up to lofty expectations in his first few years – could be in a position to play on the qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent after his fifth season. Williamson’s talent and stature are such that, even if he did suffer an injury on the qualifying offer, a team might still sign him regardless. Durant just signed a four-year $US162 million max deal after tearing his Achilles.

Williamson is a once-in-a-generation prospect, so it’s unlikely that other rookies will sign shoe deals of this magnitude. Nonetheless, future talented young players could sign lofty deals that outweigh their rookie contracts. Those deals could encourage players to take a gamble on themselves to better control their NBA futures.

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