Few would question that Zion Williamson is by far the top player entering the NBA, and so where he’ll play is not up for debate. But what will be on his feet when he debuts as a professional basketball player? Could a Chinese brand likes of Li-Ning, Peak or Anta steal the hottest NBA rookie from the likes of Nike ( NKE ) and Adidas ( ADDYY )? Some experts believe it's possible.
"I’m betting that a Chinese brand steps up here,” said Matt Powell, NPD Group vice president, and senior industry advisor. “I have no idea what the contract will be ... I see the Chinese brands trying to take back market share they lost to Western brands.”
That time Zion’s Nikes exploded
On a chilly evening in late February, millions watched as then-Duke star Williamson's left Nike PG 2.5 sneaker exploded at the start Duke vs. University of North Carolina (UNC) game. The incident was a scary one for Duke, but an embarrassing one for Nike. The swoosh brand immediately sprung into action — sending a team to make a mold of Williamson's foot and creating a modified version of Kyrie 4's for the 6′ 7″ 285 lb. star.
Nike and its stock recover ed from the temporary embarrassment. But from that incident sparked a debate that would play out until draft day: To which shoe company would Zion sign?
Before “Shoegate” it was seen as a foregone conclusion that the 2019 first overall draft pick would sign with Nike. That's the brand he played in during his time at Duke, and Nike is the choice of most NBA players. According to data compiled by Ballershoesdb.com , 72% of NBA players hoop in Nike-owned sneakers, which includes the Jordan brand.
Chinese brands are already here
Nike might be the biggest name on the block, but it's not the only name out there.
Chinese brand Li-Ning, founded in 1989, made a splash in 2012 when the company signed away three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade away from Nike's Jordan brand in a deal worth around $8 million. Chinese sneaker companies such as Li-Ning, Peak, or Anta have made their way into the NBA sneaker landscape. Combined, the three companies claim the feet of 3.9% of NBA players.
Powell told Yahoo Finance that it’s not so far fetched that one of the Chinese brands makes a late play at Zion. He believes that with Zion, Li-Ning, Peak, or Anta could have a chance to take back the market share they have lost to western brands. And what better way than snagging the most coveted rookie in the NBA?
The NPD vice president reminds Yahoo Finance that Q1 performance basketball shoes sales are down 20% in the U.S. However, in China, the basketball sneaker market is growing.
Still, the idea of a Chinese brand snagging the No. 1 pick is a bit of a longshot.
UBS analyst Jay Sole does not know where Williamson will sign, but he believes the safe money is on Nike. Despite the shoe exploding incident, Zion has a familiarity with the Nike brand, which gives a leg up on the competition, said.
Sole also says that for a non-traditional brand to sign Zion, it would have to offer him a deal worth significantly more than more well-known brands.
Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade .