As the LaMelo Ball-RJ Hampton extravaganza rolled into Spark Arena, this electric, anticipated match-up was the perfect storm for the NBL. Finally, the two prized Next Stars would meet, after their visages had calcified within the collective NBL conscience.
The fact a bevy of NBA scouts were in attendance only ramped up the voltage and aggrandisement of the occasion. What ensued on the court was a horrendously one-sided bout won by the Breakers, 103-72, where Ball was the showman, while Hampton embraced the grit and the grind.
Though they played divergent roles in this game, one that at times descended into a pantomime, it nevertheless will promise to stoke the fires for future battles in this league. Beyond, the brighter -- and harsher -- lights of the NBA await. In that regard, perhaps nothing else matters.
Perhaps the only thing that matters is realising their promise. And the initial exchanges showcased moments of what that promise looks like.
In their first direct confrontation, Ball burst deep into the lane, only to have his attempt swatted by his nemesis.
Midway through the first quarter, Breakers swingman Thomas Abercrombie threw ahead to a surging Hampton. The Breakers guard sprung high, caught the ball, and in one motion dumped off to Rob Loe to make it 15-2.
By that stage, Ball was already pulled after four minutes, registering a minus-13 (0/2 and two turnovers). He would finish the game with 10 points (3-of-13 from the field), seven rebounds and four assists. He struggled from the three-point line (2-of-7) once again.
Hampton, his perfectly-scripted foil, finished with eight points (4-of-9), seven rebounds and three assists.
In the final stanza, Ball, after a string of head-bobbing crossovers, threaded a pass to a rolling AJ Ogilvy with his left hand for the basket. There was the tip jam he unleashed after an Aaron Brooks miss.
Throughout the contest, Hampton seemed to revel in the frenzy of the early Breakers 11-2 onslaught, embracing the grit, and staying low in a defensive stance.
At times, it seemed as though Ball was cannibalising the Hawks' offence. On the other end, he did not offer staunch defensive resistance. Ball too often still took shortcuts, gambling and lunging out of position - he blatantly flaunts the basic rule of keeping vision on both the ball and his mark.
Hampton largely played off the ball -- almost staying out of the way of the offence -- and seemed happy to dig his heels in defensively. When the opportunity arose, Hampton scythed into the lane using his speed and slipperiness to jaunt into the heart of the defence.
With the victory secured, there was a surreal atmosphere as the crowd simultaneously cheered Breakers buckets, while bizarrely roaring their approval (and anticipation) with the prospect of a highlight from Ball.
Therein lies the dichotomy of spectacle and substance. The question to be asked is which takes priority?
What the league has always sold all along with these Next Stars is the theme of promise. There is the promise that these two young men could develop into sure-fire NBA lottery locks in a "this-ain't-no-cupcake" league.
There is the promise that the NBL will reap in the resultant rewards - as more people tune in and more youngsters see the league as a viable pathway.
And then there is the promise that both Ball and Hampton will be given ample opportunity to prove themselves.
In that regard, Ball logged 21 minutes in this contest, while Hampton was on court for 26 minutes. Ball logged 31.2 minutes per game leading into Round 4; Hampton averaged 20.4 minutes from a pair of games against the Kings.
In spite of the ball-handling trickery, the youthful burst of speed, and the mercurial passing vision, Ball has thus far struggled to navigate the task of galvanising on-court offensive cohesion - how to marry all those natural skills into winning team basketball. He was a team-worst minus-25 against the Breakers, continuing his negative trend.
Hampton is still a slight negative for the season, but was plus-7 against the Hawks. In fairness, he negotiates a lesser role for the Breakers.
Both are still struggling to find their optimal shot profile. Hampton appears to be most comfortable scooting into the lane. Ball, it seems, is experimenting with everything.
Transition is the arena in which these two athletes were projected to excel, when the game was at its chaotic zenith, when the strictures of basketball are most relaxed.
According to play type data at jordanmcnbl.com, Ball has scored at a rate of 0.58 points per possession through 28 transition plays this season. Hampton recorded 10 such plays at 0.77 points per possession. The league average mark is 1.03 points per possession.
Ball has finished six plays deemed as cuts and scored at 1.19 points-per-possession, which is below league average. Hampton is yet to register such a play - he is almost stashed away in the half-court.
Ball has finished 20 isolations plays at 1.0 points per possession; the league average is 0.9. Hampton had two unsuccessful isolation plays.
As the pick-and-roll ball-handler, Ball is at 0.66 points per possession; Hampton is at 0.9, above the league average mark of 0.87. There appears to be more purpose when Hampton attacks.
Ball still struggles mightily to shoot the ball - he did make two outside shots against the Breakers, but fired away all too indiscriminately (seven attempts). Hampton is at 25 percent (2-of-8).
The naivety to their game that defies fear is the one that must be nurtured. Yet at the same time, it is fraught with risk that can turn the hairs of a coach grey -- or more grey, as it were -- that there is the need to gird oneself for the wild ride, and the upswings and downswings that invariably characterise the journey of young players.
Still, there is a fine line to balance for both franchises, in which they sit precariously upon a ledger. On the one side, team success is always the noble and ultimate goal. Whilst on the other, the need to mollify assurances that these high profile Next Stars - an arrangement which promises so much for the league - will be given ample opportunity.
For the Hawks, as each loss mounts, it only serves to amplify criticism of what the actual endgame is. For the Breakers, the integration of Hampton is perhaps less precarious, with the buffer of veteran shot creators in Corey Webster and Scotty Hopson to do the heavy lifting.
It is perhaps unfair to critique the infant stages of the professional basketball careers of Ball (six games in the NBL) and Hampton (three games) at this early juncture - the real indicators are if they learn, if they grow, if they heed the lessons being applied.
We want them to succeed. There is no greater fillip for the league than to be able to boast of their successful development into genuine top NBA lottery prospects.
The promise is there - for the players and the league. We have three more encounters to see if they can fulfil it.