The NBL's Next Stars program could be a winner in the talent arms race, and it all rides on Hampton and Ball

The NBL's Next Stars pathway is taking off in dramatic style.

In its brief history so far, the Next Stars program (NSP) has helped reshape the NBL into a potential talent factory with global recognition. The bold ambition of the program has even raised eyebrows through the American basketball scene, from high school to the pros.

Back in 2018, the Next Stars program made its debut with the Sydney Kings signing Brian Bowen II, a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect from Michigan. It was a strong start, but 2019 put the Next Stars program into the global spotlight.

The program took a big jump when 18-year-old R.J. Hampton committed to the New Zealand Breakers in May. The five-star prospect finished his high school career ranked fifth on the ESPN 100 Recruiting Database rankings, and committed to the NBL over college offers from NCAA heavyweights Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Memphis.

Less than a month later, the NBL dropped its biggest bombshell of the offseason. The youngest member of the most infamous family in basketball, LaMelo Ball, yet another five-star recruit, signed with the Illawarra Hawks. One of the most talked-about names in basketball was now under the NBL banner.

In early July, two more young players joined the NBL as Next Stars. Terry Armstrong, a four-star recruit who previously committed to play for the Arizona Wildcats, elected to sign with the South East Melbourne Phoenix.

On the same day, Sydney got in on the act, signing New Orleans Pelican guard, Brazilian Marcos 'Didi' Louzada Silva, who unlike the earlier Next Stars, would be a draft and stash option.

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The NBL, thanks to the Next Stars program has become an attractive market for young talented players looking for new pathways to the NBA outside the confines of the NCAA.

In an interview on ESPN’s program Get Up!, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke in glowing terms of Australia’s basketball culture and youth development programs, touting it as a great path for young and ambitious players to take. However, he also flagged his intention to make the G League a viable professional pathway in the USA.

"Australia has a fantastic development system," Silver said. "[Hampton] thought he was better off in Australia than out G League, [so] I think I'm going to talk to Commissioner Shareef [Abdur-Rahim] of the G League and say, 'what should we be looking at differently?'"

Right now, the G League is keeping things under wraps. When asked about the league's strategy on talent development, an NBA G League spokesperson shared the following statement.

“The NBA G League continues to be a viable pathway for young basketball talent to develop their skills in advance of the NBA Draft. And, through the NBA G League’s Professional Path and Select Contracts, elite young players have enhanced opportunities to immerse themselves in NBA-style basketball as they pursue their NBA dreams.”

With the NBA --via the G League-- looking to possibly flex its mighty muscles in the same sphere as the NBL’s Next Stars program and Europe, what is the NBL brain trust doing to protect its turf?

Payment is obviously a factor, but right now, the NBL is looking to capitalise on its cultural points of difference to the NBA G-League, NCAA and European leagues, as well as the strategic advantages.

“There are a few points of distinction that we discuss often,” NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger shared in an interview with The Pick and Roll last month. “The first is that it’s Australia, and it's the summertime, therefore it's a really attractive proposition from the point of view of a young amateur athlete who is soon going to be a career-long NBA guy.

“That kind of experience is really important to someone's personal development, in my opinion. It teaches them independence, and being away from home, being away from school, but also it can be a very grounding experience that adds to the well-roundedness of them as a person. The English-speaking component of it is really important, and it's a significant point of difference to going and playing in say, Europe.”

The NBL is not likely to secure a monopoly on young talent, and concedes that the G League will most likely become a compelling alternative pathway for American players. According to Loeliger, the NBL is offering itself as a product to those players with particular needs and desires.

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“[The NBL plays] a fewer number of games, which can either be a pro or a con, depending on what it is that particular player needs to develop during that period of time. But for a lot of guys, we think that only playing 28 regular season games, with plenty of time in the gym and on the practice court, to develop their body and develop their skills, and not necessarily just playing and travelling all the time, is a significant difference.”

Soon, the NBA itself may once again become a player in the post high school talent arms race. In the same interview on Get Up!, Adam Silver said the NBA was investigating the option on allowing players to go directly from high school into the NBA by 2022, reopening the prep to pro NBA option once more.

Loeliger does not expect this development to undermine the Next Stars program and invalidate the benefits it offers young players.

“Just because [the NBA] lowers the age, doesn't mean that guys who are younger are going to be any more prepared to take on the NBA than they were if the age is what it is now.

“It takes a pretty special athlete to go from high school straight to the NBA. We've seen guys do it successfully — LeBron James comes to mind as a pretty successful guy who transitioned from high school to the NBA — but he's a pretty special athlete.

“Just because it's a possibility doesn't mean that every player is going to do it, that every player is going to be ready to do it, or indeed that every GM at every NBA club is going to invest in what is inherently a riskier proposition.

“The truth is that you don't often know whether or not a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old is going to successfully translate from being a good high school basketballer, to excellent professional basketballer. They're going through a very significant period of growth, both in terms of physical growth, in terms of basketball IQ [and] in terms of personal development.”

Andrew Bynum is a great example of this issue. Bynum was a terrific talent who was on track to become one of the NBA’s top players, winning two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. However, it quickly became apparent that life in the NBA was too much, too soon. Injuries were a factor, but his immaturity and lack of personal development greatly inhibited his post-Lakers career.

Despite our American cousins preparing to throw their weight around in the growing arms race for up-and-coming talent, it appears the NBL is well-placed to emerge as a respected pathway to the NBA.

That is not to say the path ahead is completely without the challenges of outside competition. Europe is an option that has a considerable appeal to players looking for developmental choices beyond the NCAA. It is, after all, considered to have the best competition in the world, outside of the NBA.

Recently, the value of the European pathway was put on full display by Luka Dončić. His years of playing European basketball gave him on-court maturity beyond his years. In his rookie season, Doncic floored many of the American analysts, many of whom who still hold the outdated belief that the only talent worth taking notice of comes out of the NCAA.

This upcoming NBL season will be a terrific test of the NSP. Thanks to the level of talent, the program has attracted the entire global basketball community will be watching with great interest and curiosity. The question of how this experiment plays out will be running through many heads.

Never has the program had such high-profile names under its wing. In Hampton and Ball, the NBL has two top-tier players in its care. Players who, if they live up to expectations, will be highly sought after by NBA teams. The pressure is on for the NBL to guide them on that journey and facilitate their development into professionals.

Brian Bowen II, the biggest Next Star last year went undrafted, although ultimately signing a two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers. If the Next Stars program is to truly brand its mark on the basketball world, these two players need to be drafted, and drafted high. Next year's NBA draft will be the ultimate litmus test on the value of having Next Stars in the NBL.

One thing is certain. If Hampton and Ball, two players tipped to be lottery picks, are able to use the NBL as a springboard to NBA stardom, then the arms race will go a whole new level. Watch this space.