On Tuesday morning, RJ Hampton sat down in front of ESPN’s cameras and made the announcement that every kid dreams of when he first picks up a basketball…. He’ll be playing next season for the New Zealand Breakers.
Ok so obviously I’m being sarcastic, but it is a decision that sent shockwaves across the entire world of basketball. There have been players who have gone overseas for a year (Brandon Jennings, Jeremy Tyler, Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrence Ferguson) and a few others who’ve sat out of college basketball all together (Mitchell Robinson and Darius Bazley). But none quite like Hampton.
The reasons are two-fold. One, there were no academic or NCAA issues holding Hampton back. Unlike Jennings, Mudiay and Ferguson, if RJ Hampton wanted to play college basketball, there was nothing stopping him. But two, and more importantly, he’s simply better than all of them. Hampton was by basically any tangible measurement, one of the Top 5 prospects in America last year. Barring something shocking, he will be a Top 5 pick next year’s NBA Draft – the kid is honestly that good. Yet rather than playing it safe and doing what hundreds of other elite prospects did, he took an alternative path.
And ultimately, if there was any doubt why he chose that alternative path, Hampton made it clear Tuesday morning on ESPN. He said it’s because he believes that this is what will best prepare him for a future in the NBA.
“My No. 1 goal is to play in the NBA,” Hampton said. “I wanted to be an NBA player before I ever wanted to be a college player. This is about getting ready for the next level faster and more efficiently.”
And that’s all fair and good, and of course the media went out of the way to applaud him for such a courageous decision. There’s just one problem: After doing some pretty extensive research on Hampton’s new team and league, I can’t find a single shred of evidence that it will actually better prepare him better for the NBA than college would have. If anything, I think you could make a legitimate case it’s the exact opposite, that college is the better alternative than this particular pro league.
Now before we go further, I want to make something abundantly clear: This article wasn’t written to go after Hampton or his family. I didn’t do this because I love college basketball (which I do) and want to attack any kid who makes any alternate decision. Hampton made the decision that was best for he and his family, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
What bothers me is the media lauding him for the decision without doing any research. Because like I said, I can’t find a single ounce of evidence that would indicate that from strictly a basketball standpoint, this was a better decision for him than going to a big-time college basketball power.
Now for those of you who don’t know anything about the NBL (which was me, like six hours ago) let me give you a few details. Because while the NBL is, in theory, a pro league, with salaries and arenas and things of that nature, it isn’t a pro league in the traditional sense that we think of in America. As best I can tell, it’s more on par with a high-major college league. The players are a little older, and the amenities are a little worse. But playing in this league will be a far cry from playing in a junior/mini NBA, which is what everyone has made it out to be.
For starters, the NBL season basically runs equivalent to the college season. Games start in early October and run through early March. But here’s the catch: They only play 28 regular season games, plus a few for the playoffs. This year’s NBL champs, the Perth Wildcats, played a grand total of 34 games this year, including the playoffs.
In essence, the NBL runs over the same period of time as college hoops, only plays fewer games. So if part of this decision was to allow Hampton to adjust to the “professional lifestyle” (like he said on Tuesday morning) well he’s really not doing that. This league isn’t about playing one game and hopping on a flight to the next like in the NBA, and it certainly won’t prepare Hampton for the grind of an 82-game NBA schedule any better than college basketball would have. I sure hope he likes to practice, because that’s basically what’s he’s going to be doing every day for six months of his life.
Now of course at the same time, I know most of you are thinking: Ok, fine, whatever, the schedule isn’t so intense. But the competition level in Australia will be way better than in college basketball. He will be playing against grown men after all.
Serious question though: What if those grown men aren’t all that good?
Because here’s what you need to know about the big, bad, mighty NBL, which is going to so well prepare Hampton for the NBA next season: The 2019 league MVP was… Andrew Bogut. The same Andrew Bogut who hasn’t averaged more than six points per game in the NBA since 2014. The same Andrew Bogut who returned to the Golden State Warriors for the playoff push late this season (once the NBL season was done) and played a grand total of 24 minutes in the Western Conference Finals.
Honestly, Bogut is a great leader and locker room presence, but at this point is actual basketball tangibles are up for debate. If there were 450 players on NBA rosters this season, I don’t think you could legitimately make a case that he was in the Top 400. And that’s the guy who was the best player in this league?
As a matter of fact, let’s take things one step further: You know who won the Rookie of the Year in the NBL last season? A guy by the name of Harry Froling, a kid that college basketball fans should tangentially remember. He played at Marquette two seasons ago and averaged three points per game. Two years ago the league’s Rookie of the Year was Isaac Humphries, who couldn’t get off the bench at Kentucky.
So to be clear… the last two Rookie’s of the Year in the NBL couldn’t get off the bench at major colleges. And… THIS LEAGUE IS GOING TO BETTER PREPARE RJ HAMPTON FOR THE NBA THAN COLLEGE??? WHEN THEIR TWO BEST PLAYERS COULDN’T EVEN PLAY IN COLLEGE? JUST STOP!!!!!!!!
And I haven’t even hit on other factors. Remember, “preparing” for the NBA isn’t just about the competition on the floor (which is suspect at best) but other variables too. For example, what are the weight-training programs like in the NBL? I know he’d be working with a work class strength and conditioning coach at Kansas, Memphis, Duke or Kentucky. I can’t say I’m as sure about the merits of the Breakers’ strength plan. What will he be eating while he’s over there? Because I know that every major college basketball program in America has a nutritionist, and in many cases, a private chef on staff.
By the way, if this path really is going to so much better prepare him for the NBA than college, shouldn’t we at least go back to the last kid who went from high school, to the NBL, to the NBA? That would be Terrence Ferguson who skipped a season at Arizona, went on to the NBL, then was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017. In his first NBA season, he averaged three points per game. In his second NBA season this year he averaged seven. Well by golly, it sure does show how much better he is because of his season in Australia. How much would he be averaging had he gone to college instead of played professionally? Half a point worse. Again, just stop.
Now again to be clear, this isn’t anything personal about RJ Hampton. He’s a great kid and a great player, and the bottom-line is that he is going to end up a Top 5 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft whether he played at Kansas or with the New Zealand Breakers next year. In his case, he chose the path that was best for him, even if it was a bit different.
My only issue is using the reasoning that it will better prepare him for the NBA than college basketball.
That simply isn’t true at all.