The Consequence of Promise: Breaking down RJ Hampton, the NBL and the Next Stars program

RJ Hampton has promise.

We all know what this means. There is nothing particularly new to the idea that an explosive, 6’5” point guard has the potential to alter the basketball landscape. Every year we are sold another star yet to be born, every year we rue a newly maligned messiah. But the intriguing tension of Hampton’s promise is that his success is possibly more important to the league he plays within, than to the team he actually plays for. The duality, and precarity, centred around Hampton’s growth is that his future may irrevocably change our Australian basketball reputation – even after he has left us all behind.

Promises made

Televising his decision on ESPN, Hampton eschewed the typically All-American collegiate trajectory by choosing instead to play for the New Zealand Breakers.

Immediately obfuscating the traditional narrative of why young players bypass college, Hampton’s story wasn’t about a kid who couldn’t quite keep his grades up, nor did it illustrate the arc of an ineligible player forced to take the road less travelled. Instead, Hampton was a five-star recruit who was offered scholarships by everyone and anyone who mattered. In the era of player empowerment, in the digital age of the Reddit collegiate exploitation thread, Hampton’s move signalled a shift in basketball globalisation.

RJ chose to play on the other side of the world.

And sure, like any millennial who elects to backpack a foreign continent while all of their friends are getting drunk at Freshers’ week, the decision raised some eyebrows. But with the NBL bizarrely recording more views in China over the last two seasons than in Australia, and with Hampton already signing a multi-million dollar shoe deal with Li-Ning, the move also felt astutely mature (unlike that one mate of yours who thought New Delhi would be a dream at 18). In a recent phone interview with the Pick and Roll, Hampton noted that “coming here was the best decision that I could’ve made.”

Still, how do we assess a surefire NBA player’s draft stock when they’ve gone so completely off-script? Scouts have a documented library, a nuanced understanding of how an athlete’s performances at Duke or Real Madrid can translate over to the NBA. Few, if any, have a detailed read on a transition from the NBL. With mostly eye test material and burgeoning NBL stats available to bolster assessments, we are left instead with the murky idea of an exchange rate – one in which the NBL’s currency is so new, that it is yet to even be defined in opposition to the NBA’s official denomination. And so, like LaMelo Ball, Hampton, is playing two games at once – graded not only against his direct NBL competition, but against the subjective perspective of how his game will work over in the US of A. In other words, there’s some real Schrödinger’s cat type shit going down right now.

But is Hampton stressed about any of that? Not really. “Honestly, when I was in high school, I knew that every game was also graded by college coaches. You can’t really worry about who is watching.”

Regardless, while the NBL indeed presented the developing teenager with the unique “challenge of playing against grown men,” our televised reality was that the basketball world would also be watching. Offering an opportunity to study the game “in English,” the impression that the NBL seemingly made on Hampton was that its infrastructure and competition would aptly prepare and package him for the next level. But has it?

A quiet hype

Cut to week six of the NBL season, and Hampton’s playing style so far embodies a modest assuredness; combining pro-level individualism with a selfless, complementary calm. With the ability to both bend team defences and dish nimble pocket passes with either hand, there have been stretches in games where Hampton has created open look after open look for his teammates – even if the box score hasn’t necessarily reflected his altruistic nature.

Having practised complex offensive reads with his father and trainer since seventh grade – where Hampton would run through detailed pick and roll scenarios with “a help man, a corner man” and an on-ball defender – you can similarly see Hampton's Gladwellian study shining through a Breakers uniform. Notice how, after beating Melbourne United on one play with a drop off, Hampton then catches Melo Trimble and Jo Lual-Acuil subsequently over-helping on Brandon Ashley’s following roll.

Running an offence that sees their bigs stationed around the high post and guards speeding into hand-offs and curls, the Breakers’ game plan appears modern enough: try to keep defences from holding the nail and attack rotations from deep or off the dribble. However, following their latest loss against the Wildcats, New Zealand also averages the second highest amount of isolation plays per game in the league, and have the second worst offensive rating across the NBL.

Comparatively, Hampton is individually averaging nearly a point per pick and roll play – even without statistically factoring in his impact as a passer. Given the ever improving dynamism that he has then shown as a lead playmaker, it can be at times perplexing to watch the Breakers often stash their young star somewhere in a corner (video).

In saying that, the Breakers do have firepower on the wings – in Sek Henry, Corey Webster and Scotty Hopson before his injury – and you would also be hard pressed to find Hampton frustrated within his role. Maintaining that his “teammates do a great job of including me and trusting me with the ball,” Hampton’s recent hot shooting (4/6 from deep against the Taipans, 43% overall) has legitimised his secondary role as a floor spacer. If Ashley can (please, for the love of God) learn not to foul as much, the Breakers have felt particularly dangerous with the big man drawing help on a roll and the team attacking rotations from long range.

New Zealand was likewise sentenced a shortened preseason from hell, and so there’s also a chance that their earlier offensive sets were less reflective of an iso-heavy ideology, and more like a cruel puzzle in which the border pieces were mailed out to coach Shamir halfway through the process. It’s taken the Breakers a hot minute to fit together, sure, but that may also be because the team were asked to get started without knowing precisely where to begin. “The guys on the team tell me to be myself,” Hampton notes, “they don’t want me to come here and defer…. They say, ‘We’re behind you, we’re rooting for you, there’s really no way that you can fail.’”

There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’, but isn’t there a ‘Me’ spelt backwards?

Given Hampton’s touted talent, there is something disarming and joyful in watching the young star deflect attention away from himself. Routinely espousing a “we-first rather than me-first” persona, Hampton’s willingness to accept a more deferential role in the Breakers’ offence illuminates his authentic floor-general temperament. Hampton doesn’t just spit out rote selfless rhetoric – you won’t find him proclaiming that he is team-first and then catch him hunting individual stats. Rather, in watching Hampton's team play, you’re more likely to see the young point guard jump in joy, literally, at his teammates’ success while still out on the court (video).

Nevertheless, the issue of performance in Australia has never been about talent or humility, but of visibility. There’s a reason as to why Ben Simmons left to play high school ball in America, why Kevin Parker now lives in the Hollywood Hills, why The Ringer just wrote a glowing piece on LaMelo Ball, whilst failing to catch that his Illawarra-led team have nearly the worst offensive and defensive rating in the league. Hampton himself believes that he “knows what the NBA is looking for, and [that] it’s not really based off stats,” but why then has his friend LaMelo’s draft stock sky-rocketed whilst Hampton’s has kept relatively steady? For all of our access to internet streams, there is a chance that Hampton’s relatively innocuous per game numbers will matter in the future. The question of who is paying attention and when seems more important than ever.

How To Fit Out

Intrigue and mystery can both hurt and/or help a young player’s draft stock. While Hampton’s role on the Breakers may not highlight the extent of his strengths, we might not know the extreme of his weaknesses either. Hampton indeed has to get physically stronger – especially on the defensive end – though scouts will probably assess Hampton’s typical teenagerly weakside defensive lapses as manageable. Similarly, while still learning how to best “take advantage of [his] length and quickness” on the defensive end, Hampton clearly has the intelligence and anticipation to make the right reads.

Even factoring in a few underwhelming preseason NBA games, it seems unfair to suggest that Hampton’s limitations are ingrained.

So, can we aptly predict how his body will fill out? Can we simply extrapolate his length and quickness to a more athletic setting? Like a film flopping at the box office but later becoming a cult hit, it might take some time for a broader audience to appreciate the true depth of Hampton’s talent – even after he gets to the NBA. Nevertheless, given Hampton's secondary role on the Breakers and his self-effacing manner, we are left instead with one immediate and profound question: Hampton has the ability to fit in, but does he have the game-changing nous to stand out?

The NBL’s Promise

The NBL has more momentum than any other time in recent memory. With nearly two million people reportedly tuning in to see Hampton and Ball go head to head, the league has pointed to the intensified attention that its Next Stars program has generated as an indicator that reinforces its “status as the second best domestic basketball league in the world.” For all the good that it does in Hampton then putting his team first, there is also a subsequent and complex tension in having to balance selfless nobility with the pressurised responsibility of proving himself to a grander basketball audience.

Hampton himself has noticed the hype, but isn’t stressed. “I can see it, and I feel that’s really a blessing, but I try not to focus on what I’m apart of or how well the NBL is doing. At the end of the day, [my success] is because of my team too. We put up the numbers.”

Regardless, the reality for us – the consumers of the NBL – is that Hampton’s future will not only act as a standardised representation of the quality of his current team, but of the entire league itself. Outside of Australia, the NBL is considered “mid-tier.” This definition isn’t a slight, we simply have some ground to make up. But if the NBL is going to legitimately brand itself as both a developmental hothouse to its players, and as the second-best league to its audience, we must also consider the ripple effects of what it means to push these Next Stars into the spotlight. Is the NBL now responsible and indebted to its larger audience? Are the Breakers beholden to the league to develop Hampton more so than their other players? Are digital eyeballs worth more than team memberships?

It is unfair to expect that the Breakers or the NBL should be able to answer all of these questions right now. However, there is also a heightened probability that the NBA will lower its age restriction down to 18 in 2022. The clock is already ticking. For a domestic league that is then desperate to prove that its teams are globally elite, what may be more important to its own survival is a concerted focus on cementing its reputation as an institution that can develop off-shore individual talent. It sounds painfully unpatriotic, but if the NBL is banking on perpetuating the successes of the likes of Hampton and Ball, then how is it going to compete in 2022 with other establishments that are less than a 20-hour flight away?

Likewise, if the league actively assures these Next Stars that its competition will prepare them for the next level, then what happens if they fail to make a lasting impression once they get there? Will people point to some previously unseen poison in the NBL’s well? As Warren Yiu pointed out, “there is no greater fillip” for the NBL than to boast of Hampton and Ball’s possible ascension. Echoing the hipster ethos of ‘I heard them before they were cool’ – as if Bon Iver were parading around Melbourne Arena’s sidelines with ‘Dreamstreet Lending’ embossed on his collar – the NBL will rightfully cling to, and align itself with, the successes of its Next Stars as if they themselves were born on these very shores. For now, everything looks gravy, and there is a very real timeline in which the NBL is able to proudly align team success with individual growth. But if the NBL’s spectatorial promise is one centred around the notion of ‘What the Future Holds’, then what happens, to everyone involved, if these stars fail to shine?

While our Australian basketball infrastructure may feel like an undersized teenager who suddenly grew eight inches over summer break – and maybe we should cut them some serious slack if they can’t windmill yet – the precarious irony of the NBL’s marketed ‘promise’ is that, only in hindsight, will any of these assurances actually ring true. For what it’s worth, Hampton himself seems certainly primed to succeed. Again, his agency is paramount here: he chose to come to Australia.

While Hampton will be the only person able to truly “define his own game,” the young star holds more than his own destiny in his hands. The NBL and its Next Stars program will be forever linked – for better or for worse.