Has the NBL's Next Stars program peaked too early with LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton?

Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Terrance Ferguson broke new ground when he signed with the Adelaide 36ers in 2016. Ferguson was rated a 5-star recruit by ESPN, and the 11th best player in his high school class.

It wasn't completely unheard of for a high-level NBA draft prospect to take their talents overseas: Emmanuel Mudiay played in China for a year and Brandon Jennings went to Italy. However, Ferguson was the first to look down under, blazing a new trail for draft hopefuls.

Oklahoma City would later draft the 6'6 shooting guard 21st, proving that college basketball doesn't have to be the next step for prodigious high school talents. The NBL capitalised on Ferguson's Australian adventure by implementing the "Next Stars" program in 2018. Under the novel scheme, players are directly contracted to the NBL - rather than clubs - and receive guidance in navigating the challenges of being a professional athlete.

Humble beginnings

The Next Stars program kicked off in 2018 with inaugural prospect Brian Bowen II, who joined the Sydney Kings. Rated the 14th best player in his high school class by ESPN, Bowen was a 5-star player like Ferguson. The Kings recruit was already one year removed from high school, having sat out the 2017/18 college basketball season after the FBI investigated Louisville - his intended destination - for recruiting violations.

Bowen eventually went undrafted in 2019, but this isn't a reflection of the Next Stars program. The Louisville scandal was a major blow to his draft stock. Bowen still found his way into the NBA, signing a two-way deal with the Indiana Pacers in June.

With Bowen NBA-bound, R.J. Hampton was next in line. Ranked fifth in the high school class of 2019 by ESPN, Hampton was already the biggest win in the program's short history. What happened next would take the NBL by storm.

Hampton hype and Ball mania

Just three weeks after R.J. Hampton committed to the New Zealand Breakers ahead of the 2019/20 NBL season, LaMelo Ball announced that he was "taking his talents to the NBL". Ball has wasted no time as a member of the Illawarra Hawks. Previously ranked just 21st in his high school class by ESPN, he is now in the discussion for the first overall pick in next year's NBA draft. Hampton is no slouch either - ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony projects the 6'5 guard to be drafted 5th next year.

Aside from his basketball prowess, LaMelo Ball has brought celebrity swagger to the NBL. As the brother of former #2 NBA draft pick Lonzo Ball, and the son of LaVar Ball, LaMelo has never been far from the spotlight. His family even have their own reality TV show, aptly titled "Ball in the Family". With such a high-profile recruit, the NBL has arguably never had better publicity.

It should come as no surprise that LaMelo Ball puts bums on seats. The November 18 clash between Illawarra and Sydney broke an NBL attendance record which stood for over two decades. 17,541 people descended upon Qudos Bank Arena to catch a glimpse of the 6'7 point guard. For comparison, just 9,512 fans turned out to watch the table-topping Kings take on fourth-placed United in early December - at the same arena no less.

Furthermore, LaMelo Ball's presence is felt in the NBL's online viewership and television ratings. For instance, one million viewers tuned in to a preseason match between Illawarra and the Brisbane Bullets. Ball also boasts five million followers on Instagram, with star power extending well beyond the court. However, he won't be in Wollongong much longer. Ball and Hampton are likely to catch the first plane back to the USA once the NBL season concludes. The Next Stars program requires succession planning to preserve momentum.

Has the Next Stars program peaked already?

Looking ahead to the 2020 USA high school recruiting class, 22 of the top 28 prospects have already committed to playing college basketball. Among the remaining six is tenth- ranked Makur Maker, a Sudanese-Australian originally based in Perth. Maker has already ruled out playing in the NBL next season, and is awaiting clearance to enter the 2020 NBA draft directly.

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That leaves us with five high-level recruits who are yet to decide their futures.

Jalen Green - Ranked #3 by ESPN

Ziaire Williams - Ranked #5 by ESPN

Jalen Suggs - Ranked #6 by ESPN

Greg Brown - Ranked #8 by ESPN

Josh Christopher - Ranked #12 by ESPN

Of the aforementioned five, Green and Suggs are particularly rumoured to be considering overseas options. Either player would be a massive signing for the NBL.

While none of these prospects have the celebrity appeal of LaMelo Ball, the momentum of the Next Stars program would be maintained. With the NBL going from strength to strength, it's far too early to conclude that the initiative will never hit these heights again.

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Does the NBL have a unique selling point?

There are various reasons as to why prospects such as Ball and Hampton chose overseas basketball over the NCAA. The experience gained by playing against grown men is firstly cited quite often as a motivating factor. Furthermore, Ball has frequently mentioned the appeal of a professional strength and conditioning program. However, the NBL isn't the only league offering these benefits.

What makes the NBL more appealing than Europe? After all, a host of NBA stars began their careers there. LaMelo Ball is well-equipped to answer this question, having spent time with Lithuanian club Prienai in 2018. In a November interview, ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz questioned Ball about his Lithuanian experience and why he looks much happier in Australia.

"If you go anywhere else, you know, you just look back on Lithuania and think it could be like that," Ball said. The Illawarra Hawk doesn't speak about his European stint in glowing terms, and one can understand why. Players travelling to Europe face both a language barrier and a cultural barrier, which is minimised in Australia.

In addition, the Next Stars program is a unique feature of the NBL. This one-of-a-kind experience cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The NBL is virtually sponsoring a showcase for NBA prospects, and investing in the players. Not only does the NBL directly contract their Next Stars, but there are various perks, including a car, accommodation and return flights during breaks in the season. In any other country, the league's governing body would take a backseat and adventurous prospects would be at the mercy of their club.

However, the NBL still isn't a major threat to NCAA basketball, the traditional pathway for draft hopefuls. The vast majority of elite high school prospects will remain in the States, and the NCAA's latest initiative might just keep it that way.

In September, the Governor of California signed a bill allowing college athletes to profit from endorsements and hire agents to represent them. The NCAA followed suit one month later, with a unanimous vote to allow student athletes to receive compensation. However, these changes won't be implemented any time soon. The California law will come into effect in January of 2023, while the NCAA is aiming to have new rules in place by January, 2021.

These new NCAA rules present a challenge to the NBL, but the Next Stars program was never meant to be a serious threat. The NBL merely identified a gap in the market, wide enough to bring one or two elite prospects down under each year. If Australia remains an option for the most daring of high school talents, the NCAA's new laws shouldn't have a major impact.

Draft and stash potential

With LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton stealing the spotlight, Didi Louzada Silva has largely flown under the radar. Unlike Ball and Hampton, who are working towards the 2020 NBA draft, the Brazilian was already selected by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019. Following in the footsteps of James Ennis III and Devon Hall, New Orleans sent him down under to gain experience.

Ennis and Hall both earned NBA recalls after spending just one season in Australia. Silva may follow suit, after playing out the 2019/20 season with the ladder-leading Sydney Kings. Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon formerly worked alongside Kings coach Will Weaver at the Brooklyn Nets, and Silva's development should benefit from this connection.

Draft and stash players are typically second round picks with a relatively low profile. They won't bring the celebrity appeal of a top high school prospect such as Hampton or Ball, but nonetheless have plenty to offer. For instance, James Ennis III made the All-NBL First Team in his only season with the Perth Wildcats. He used his time in Australia to lay the groundwork for a productive NBA career.

The NBL could benefit greatly from a yearly influx of NBA draftees who are surplus to requirements for their parent team. Given that the loan system has worked wonders in European soccer, why can't it translate to Australian basketball?

The answer might lie within Australia

Who says the NBL can't find talent for the Next Stars program in-house?

Queenslander Mojave King is projected to be drafted 31st in 2021, as per ESPN analyst Jonathan Givony - more on him here. Olgun Uluc of FOX Sports Australia even believes his draft projection to be a conservative estimate.

Currently based at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, King has already caught the attention of high-major Division I college teams. In October, he travelled stateside to visit Arizona and Baylor, two teams that have tabled offers to the 17 year old. The NBL would do well to swoop in and make King a "Next Star", especially given that he is a home-grown talent.

Joining King in the class of 2021 is Josh Giddey, a 6'7 point guard originally from Melbourne. Giddey is also based at the NBA Global Academy, and even received an offer from Arizona just like his teammate. Read about his rise to prominence here.

Giddey has stated he will "more than likely go to college", but that's no reason for the NBL to give up. Although the Victorian is yet to appear on draft boards, he possesses NBA upside and has been a standout in age group competitions. Giddey would be a worthy addition to the Next Stars program.

Tamuri Wigness is yet another 2002-born prospect from Canberra's NBA Global Academy. The fleet-footed point guard, originally from Cairns, has already drawn attention as a potential candidate for the Next Stars initiative. Two NBL teams attempted to sign him as a Next Star ahead of the 2019/20 season, but the league had no plans to include him in the program.

Wigness hasn't created draft buzz as of yet, possibly explaining why the NBL chose to exclude him. However, the Torres Strait Islander appears to have no intention of playing NCAA Division I basketball. Wigness rather decided to turn professional and hire an agent, making him a prime candidate for the Next Stars program. Perhaps with more experience under his belt, the 17 year old may be initiated as a "Next Star" in the future.

The next step

There is no need to be particularly concerned about the future of the Next Stars program. Australia and the NBL isn't going to have have prospects like LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton every year, and that's fine.

The next step for the league is to preserve momentum by targeting the remaining uncommitted prospects in the NBA draft class of 2021. Regardless of the outcome here, it would be prudent to then seek out potential draft and stash candidates following the 2020 draft.

Amidst these efforts, the NBL would also do well to ensure that local talents don't slip through the net. Mojave King, Josh Giddey and Tamuri Wigness would be excellent additions to the Next Stars program down the line.