The NBL's Next Stars program began with Terrance Ferguson, but it could be R.J. Hampton (and LaMelo Ball) who will make or break the NBL's reputation as an alternative pathway to the NBA.
Hampton is well aware of the stakes involved. He declared his intention to play for the NBL's New Zealand Breakers on ESPN's Get Up! in late May, and sent waves throughout basketball media.
“I just think, my dream has never been to play college basketball,” Hampton said on the show.
“My dream has always been to get to the next level and play in the NBA. So I think this was the best route for me. To live like a pro, and play with grown men every day, and not kind of have to juggle books and basketball, and just focus on my main goal.”
In a feature by Bleacher Report's Jonathan Abrams, the 6'5 point guard talked about how his decision would affect future NBA prospects.
" … I know a lot of people didn't even like my decision, but as long as I'm happy with it, people that aren't happy, nothing I can do with it.
"I think I'm building a new pathway for guys that are able to go to college to not go to college and play professional basketball. There's people that done it that had to do it because they didn't have the grades, but I think I'm taking a pathway in saying, 'Even if you're a great student but your main goal is to get to the NBA, you can do this.'"
Unlike the prospects Hampton mentioned, R.J. himself is in excellent academic shape, and is eligible for the tested and proven NCAA route. Should his year in the NBL go to plan and result in his draft stock rising, it will without a doubt prove the legitimacy of the Next Stars program, and cement its reputation firmly.
The piece also detailed how Hampton's journey to the NBL began with Adelaide 36ers head coach, Joey Wright. Wright suggested to Rod, R.J's father, that they could consider the NBL. It eventually led to the Hamptons deciding on the New Zealand Breakers, due to a variety of reasons, one of which including playing opportunity.
"I'm there to be as successful as possible and help my team win," R.J. says in the interview. "I feel like if I play good, the team's going to play good. So then we're going to win. It's not an easy league, [but] I want to win a championship there. That's the main goal."
Hampton's draft rank has remained steady in ESPN's latest 2020 mock draft, while fellow Next Star LaMelo Ball has seen his rise.
Don't miss Jonathan Abrams' feature on Bleacher Report: R.J Hampton has learned his lessons well