NBLxNBA: Loss against Thunder hints at the rise of RJ Hampton

After an admirable performance against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, the New Zealand Breakers were soundly beaten by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 110-84. The defeated Breakers return to Auckland before their opening game against Sydney in a week's time, but the play of their two guards remains an area of fascination.

After a nervous and tentative game against Memphis, RJ Hampton had a much better performance against the Thunder. His quick improvement and adaptation shows a level of basketball maturity far beyond his years. There was an elevated level of composure and aggression in his play that seemed missing in Wednesday’s contest, and he was able to impact the stat sheet in a much more meaningful way.

In nearly 30 minutes of playing time, the 18-year-old finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. However, the numbers alone don’t accurately reflect his improvement from two days ago. After an underwhelming performance in his first game on an NBA floor, it could be expected that a kid as young as Hampton would retreat into his shell, but no.

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The Texan guard was in attack mode early. Although some of the same jitters from Wednesday were visible (highlighted by a 2/11 shooting performance), he stuck to his guns and found other ways outside of scoring to remain a threat.

Hampton’s playmaking and movement with the ball was exceptional. His quick first step and lightning-quick changes in direction allowed him to get where he wanted, almost at will. His four assists were generated and earned through skill, despite an OKC defence that seemed intent on putting the youngster in his place. Hampton showed great heart and resolve in playing through the attention and getting his teammates involved.

“RJ looks good," Thunder guard, Chris Paul shared. "I watched some film on him this summer after the trade happened and I saw this was on the preseason schedule. He’s very talented and I see why all the scouts and GMs came to see him play.”

Although he couldn’t get them to fall with consistency, Hampton also exhibited his incredible gifts as a slasher. Getting deep penetration is not an issue for him. He has the speed, bounce, and handles. The next step will be finishing the job consistently after all the hard work is done.

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After having a praiseworthy game on Wednesday against Memphis, in which Corey Webster put his team on his back in the second half, the guard vanished against Oklahoma. Once again, Webster’s performance raises the recurring question of his fluctuating consistency.

At his core, Webster is a scorer. It’s what he does best and it feeds the rest of his game. Tonight, he finished with 10 points, 5 rebounds and 1 assist. On the surface, it may seem like a passable performance. However, all 10 of his points came in the fourth quarter, when the game was well and truly decided. Prior to his ‘big’ fourth quarter, he was 0/6 from the field.

Webster was eventually able to get some points on the scoreboard, but it is difficult to find positives. The Auckland native looked lethargic and disengaged, and would routinely go through long stretches where you could be easily forgiven if you forgot he was on the floor.

Against Memphis, he fought through the adversity of a bad start to have a good game. Tonight, his slow start seemed to knock the wind out of his sails.

In fairness, his lethargy and poor overall performance could be explained by the insane amount of travel the Breakers have done in a short period to play these exhibition games. However, a player who is as important to his team’s success as Webster is to the Breakers should be expected to play better, even under tough circumstances.

We all know the kind of talented player Webster is - that isn’t in question. Yet, to go from the highs of his World Cup campaign and the gutsy performance against Memphis to lows of tonight is quite jarring. Hopefully, this is just a preseason blip on Webster's radar, and he opens the next NBL game with a performance that brooks no questions.