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A first look at LaMelo Ball and R.J Hampton
LaMelo Ball and R.J Hampton are officially in Australia. Facing the media in Melbourne on Thursday morning ahead of Team USA’s exhibition clash with Australia, one could almost hear the hype train for the NBL’s upcoming season revving up.
Serendipitously, the vision session took place on Ball’s 18th birthday – and the young celeb was met by a haphazardly sung ‘Happy Birthday’ and an NBL-themed birthday cake.
Ironically, the pair were unaware of the cultural and legal significance that an 18th birthday signifies in Australian culture. When asked if he would celebrate the occasion with a schooner, Ball dryly replied, “What’s that? Oh, I don’t even drink.”
Pressed on his new role within the Illawarra Hawks’ system – and what he needed to do to improve this upcoming season – Ball laconically replied that his only information was that “the team wanted to play fast” and that he “needed to work on everything”. Ball’s short answers felt well-drilled, and yet also at odds with the larger than life mythos surrounding his family. Nevertheless, the youngest of the Ball brothers noted that he had assimilated quickly into the state of New South Wales – comparing his newest Illawarra surroundings to that of his home state of California (because “everybody out here speaks English”).
In contrast, Hampton took a more active route with the media, shaking hands and introducing himself to each member of the press. Highlighting that he and Ball were comfortable in blazing a new path to the NBA, the young combo guard (projected by many to be a top five draft pick in next year’s class) alluded to the newness of his situation, noting that he “was in science class just four months ago”.
However, having already signed a multi-million dollar shoe deal with Li-Ning, Hampton is already proving that one can take a different (and financially lucrative) journey to the NBA. Outlining that he was aware of how the “NCAA treated players…”, Hampton maintained that “players should be getting some revenue off their name, because at the end of the day, they are the ones who are bouncing the ball”. Noting that he was going to use the NBL to “get stronger and quicker”, Hampton illustrated that his decision to play for the New Zealand Breakers was concurrently made because of the NBL’s elite level of play.
Indeed, both Hampton and Ball represent a major boon for the NBL’s Next Stars Program and for Australia’s basketball economy at large. NBL Chief Executive, Jeremy Loeliger, noted that the NBL is fast ‘considering (itself) the second best basketball league in the world’ – and the media swirl around Hampton and Ball are already indicative of the improved visibility (and seemingly, draft-stock traction) a player can develop whilst playing in Australia.
With the NBA likely set to drop its age limit to 18 again in 2022, the NBL will hope that this season will be of particular note for both of its young imports. For now, time and ‘speaking English’ are on our Australian side.