What does RJ Hampton's decision to join the Australian National Basketball League and bypass college hoops on his way to the NBA mean for the sport?
Is this a trend, or something else? Let's dive into the big questions following Hampton's choice.
1. Why is Hampton heading to the NBL instead of playing college basketball?
When Hampton initially decided to reclassify from 2020 to 2019 -- essentially skipping his senior year of high school basketball -- he offered up some interesting, foreboding clues.
"I am doing this because I feel that from a development standpoint, this is the right move for me at this time in order to play against the highest level of competition possible," Hampton said. "I am eager to test myself against older and more physically developed players in order to help improve my weaknesses and prepare me for reaching the ultimate goal of playing in the NBA."
Spending a whole season playing professional basketball, practicing against real pros, working with a professional strength and conditioning program and spending every waking hour fully dedicated to his craft will certainly expedite his development.
Matt Walsh, owner of the New Zealand Breakers and a former basketball player at Florida, told ESPN that the entire organization will be fully invested in the task of helping Hampton acclimate to the NBL and eventually reach his goal of being a top-10 NBA draft pick. Walsh said his hope is that this will become an annual occurrence for the Breakers and not a one-off. The goal is to use the next 10 months to show the next RJ Hampton why he should trust their team to help take him to the next step.
After playing one exhibition game last October against the Phoenix Suns, the Breakers are expected to play two more exhibitions against NBA opponents this upcoming preseason, providing Hampton with a unique opportunity to step foot on the same floor with NBA competition eight months before being drafted. With the NBL season coming to a close in March, Hampton will have ample time to return to the U.S. and prepare for the pre-draft process without having to worry about his team's schedule, like some of his counterparts in Europe who are still playing deep into May and sometimes well into June.
2. What are the potential downsides?
Besides Terrance Ferguson (played 15 MPG as an 18-year-old in 2016-2017) and Isaac Humphries (played 16 MPG as a 19-year old in 2017-2018), it's difficult to find any other teenagers who carved out a real role in the NBL in the past decade. Brian Bowen, who played 15 MPG for the Sydney Kings, turned 20 prior to this past season beginning. And most of Australia's top young talents now elect to develop in the U.S. college system.
In the NBL, Hampton will encounter a completely different level of physicality and intensity than he has experienced in high school or AAU, which will certainly lead to some ups and downs throughout the season. The NBL is a grown man's league in which virtually every import is a former college basketball star now in the prime of his career. With NBA executives likely lining the sidelines of Hampton's games, the top competition will certainly be looking to benefit from the opportunity to showcase themselves.
In short, Hampton will need to perform well to maintain his lofty draft stock.
3. What does this mean for the 2020 draft?
NBA executives will need to add another destination to their scouting itinerary. This isn't too different from what they encountered with Ferguson in 2017 and Emmanuel Mudiay (who played in China) in 2015. The NBL adding a handful of additional draft prospects to the Next Stars program -- still a possibility, according to sources -- would benefit Hampton, as it would create more scouting opportunities for executives to circle on their calendars. LaMelo Ball's father already has been outspoken about wanting his son to play in either China or Australia next season.
The 2020 draft is completely wide open at the top, as there is no consensus whatsoever about who will ultimately end up at No. 1 -- even though James Wiseman has taken the early lead there. Scouts are fairly split on how to rate the point guard position in particular. There are things to nitpick about all of the top candidates from a group that currently includes Hampton, Theo Maledon, Cole Anthony, Nico Mannion, Tyrese Maxey and Tre Jones.
How Hampton does or doesn't separate himself from the pack in this unique situation will be interesting to monitor.
4. What does this mean for college basketball and the future NBA talent pipeline?
That's the most complicated question here. A working group was announced earlier this month exploring the topic of allowing players to benefit from the use of their names, images and likeness. That has direct implications for a prospect such as Hampton.
Beyond the benefits of playing professional basketball and earning a salary in the year before he's eligible to be drafted, he also is now able to sign endorsement deals a year earlier, since he's no longer is under the umbrella of the NCAA's amateurism rules. For someone like Hampton, who already boasts over 250,000 followers on Instagram (more than the projected top-two picks James Wiseman and Anthony Edwards combined), that could put him in line for a lucrative sneaker deal would likely be about six figures.
Some would argue that college basketball fans watch the sport more due to attachment to schools than specific star players. TV ratings exploding this season in no small part due to Zion Williamson suggest otherwise. College basketball is in a great place these days, scandals or not, but the changing landscape of the industry is something that the sport's higher ups would be foolish to completely ignore.
The big question that will arise now that Hampton has decided to take the plunge and sign in the NBL is whether any other marquee prospects will look to follow in his footsteps. Besides Ball, who would be a natural fit to play for one of the smaller teams in the NBL due to the type of playing time and development they could offer, there might not be another immediate one-and-done candidate to pursue at this stage for the 2019-20 season, as almost top every player is already committed to a college.
One factor that could change things: potential fallout from ongoing NCAA investigations stemming from the FBI corruption trials that recently concluded. NCAA investigations are currently underway into Arizona, Kansas, NC State and Louisville, while schools such as LSU and Oregon were also prominently mentioned in evidence and testimony presented at the trials.
NCAA postseason sanctions and/or head coaching firings could cause current players under scholarship at affected schools, as well as elite-level prospects enrolling this summer, to rethink their plans for next season. The NBL will likely look to scoop up any projected draft picks that decided to abandon ship, as will the NBA G League, which is offering its own professional path in the form of the G League Select Contract. The G League likely won't take kindly to losing out on a player of Hampton's caliber, and it may need to rethink its program structure moving forward considering it has yet to sign a single player for next season.
Another pool of players that the NBL may target are prospects who are already enrolled in college and would prefer not to sit out a year by transferring. There are quite a few players currently on the NBA draft early-entry list -- such as Kansas' Quentin Grimes, Michigan's Jordan Poole, or Wake Forest's Jaylen Hoard -- who are projected as second-round picks and may prefer to have a change of scenery next season without needing to redshirt. With the G League having ruled out taking on players in this mold for their Select program (although they'd still be eligible to take regular $35,000 contracts), this may be a market the NBL could look toward as well.
Finally, the NBL might not look strictly at North American high school and college players as potential Next Star candidates. Prospects from Europe, Africa or even Australia (like the next Ben Simmons or Josh Green) could come into play at some point as well. International agents have expressed frustration at times with the difficulty they've encountered in finding competitive, attractive first division situations with ample playing time for NBA draft prospects .
If the NBL teams can prove to have the patience and long-term thinking needed to use the infrastructure at their disposal to develop young players for the NBA draft -- and, in turn, potentially reap lucrative buyouts -- Australia and New Zealand could become fertile grounds for players to spend a year (or more) prior to entering the draft. The fact that there is no relegation in the now nine-team NBL certainly helps, as it reduces the downside of losing games as young players acclimate to their new environment.