RJ Hampton Skipped Out On College Basketball To Play For… The New Zealand Breakers? Yeah Alright Then

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A few days ago, Breakers owner/CEO Matt Walsh teased that there was a “global” announcement coming up from the club. Not just national, not just continental… but global. This at a time where Breakers trust amongst fans is at a pretty low ebb following a disappointing season, a lack of connection with new ownership, and some weird free agency vibes. This article was written at the start of the month and since then there have been continued rumours about Kevin Braswell’s job as head coach and even talk that SkyCity are getting frigid with their major sponsorship negotiations.

So safe to say that word that the Breakers signed RJ Hampton for the upcoming season is a pretty welcome development. Hampton is a five-star recruit coming out of high school in America. Six foot five with great athleticism, a point guard who can score the ball… the Texan prospect had offers from all the big schools but has chosen instead to go down the route of playing professionally overseas instead of going to college. Sweet as.

Terrance Ferguson (who has the same agent as RJH) was the first dude to really try this on for size, playing a year for the Adelaide 36ers in the NBL after a confusing situation where he committed to a couple colleges (one after the other) but didn’t end up signing with either. Yet he went on to be drafted by the OKC Thunder all the same, prompting the NBL to come up with a pretty brilliant scheme called Next Stars, where NBA prospects can spend a year as a pro in Australia (or Aotearoa) instead of doing the NCAA thing. Brian Bowen was the first Next Star with the Sydney Kings and he’s eligible for the upcoming 2019 NBA Draft.

RJ Hampton is a little different though because he’s a legit top prospect. The number six prospect in America according to ESPN, the 18 year old point guard has a pretty bloody decent shot at being a lottery pick in 2020 if it all goes right in New Zealand. He’s going to bring serious scouting attention to this league, which is part of the point of the Next Star programme along with hyping up what is growing to be one of the best leagues outside America (not the next best though, as some have claimed – those Euro leagues are legit). And what really seals the deal for Breakers fans is that because of his Next Stars status he doesn’t actually count as an import either, so we can still bring three more of those jokers into the fold.

So with chat all over the place about which university he’d end up at, Hampton went on the Get Up show on ESPN and instead announced live on telly that, bugger it, he didn’t wanna go to college at all. Which sounds like the antithesis of a smart move but not really the case in basketball. The NCAA system is a corrupt scam where coaches earn eight figure salaries, schools make a whole lot more than that, and players are kept as amateurs. Now, that’s a bit of a joke in itself considering the benefits of being a top college baller. You can’t get paid but they can buy you a new car. They can supply all your gear. You’re getting a free education too. Well, education in as much as they often rig it with dud classes that are impossible to fail so that fellas can concentrate on basketball whilst staying academically eligible… the whole thing is a mess and you can’t blame a dude who was only gonna be there one year anyway for not wanting a bar of it.

Luka Doncic played professionally in Europe and was super underrated ahead of last year’s draft because of the stereotypes around non-American basketball that exist in those NBA structures. Now Doncic is gonna be the landslide ROY. Playing full time against grown men in a competitive league is a proper way to improve as a player and with the globalisation of basketball this is gonna become more of an option. Hampton won’t have academic distractions here. He’ll be living as a full time pro, getting all the same single-minded focus with none of the dumb pretence.

Ah but having said that, this is still a huge risk for him. Not much of a risk for the Breakers or the NBL but Hampton is taking himself away from the college spotlight and potentially sacrificing his shot at going in the top few picks. He’s risking sliding under the radar. No digs at Kevin Braswell here but he’s not going to have access to the same level of coaching. And this is a smart dude, he easily had the grades to play wherever he wanted (his mum has a masters degree). This could be an influential decision, a bit of a ground-breaking move, giving the middle finger to the college system and showing that this is a genuine option for top prospects.

It’s also a brave move, to do something unprecedented for a player of his pedigree. And it’s a humble move because he’s putting himself in a position where he’ll be exposed as an 18 year old against and amidst grown men. If he ends up getting drafted high out of this then we’ve just seen a watershed moment for the NBL. If he slides out of contention then the stigma will be hard to overcome for this league.

Hilariously, there has been an immediate backlash to this decision amongst some college basketball folks, which I guess was always to be expected. A lot of people make a lot of money out of that industry. This situation will only ever be a rare occurrence, college basketball will still be a billion dollar marketplace even if a dozen prospects each year start to do what RJH has just done. But that doesn’t stop the NCAA journos from feeling threatened so anticipate a few pot shots coming the way of Basketball Down Under from those sources.

Yeah but where does this all leave us as Breakers fans? That’s the question I’m having the toughest time answering right now. Because this deal, on the whole, is great for the New Zealand Breakers. It’s fantastic exposure for the team and for the NBL – and the NBL deserves massive credit for the strides it has taken over the last five years, this would never have been an option otherwise. I’m a little worried about the culture clash of bringing the American Hype Machine into town but clearly it’s a net positive for the excitement and energy that Hampton will bring.

Bu this is nothing different from the strategies that Matt Walsh and his boys have been trying on from day one. Big headline American thinking at what used to be a pretty low-key and locally run club. RJ Hampton never would have happened without these owners taking a clever and opportunistic approach to a convenient moment in time… but this is the positive side of that coin which means that the negative side still exists too. And let’s just say that it’s not a particularly enjoyable sensation to hear Big Bird and ABC Commentator chat about ‘their’ basketball team on that podcast they do like it’s a shiny new toy to show off with. Sorta makes you feel a bit irrelevant as an actual long term and local fan, right? Like there’s this whole conversation going on somewhere else about this team and it’s all a big piss take. Pardon my piss take, lol.

Then of course this is coming days after the global announcement was first mentioned, days in which we had to contend with the outrageous chat that LaMelo Ball was on the way simply because LaVar said that playing overseas was an option for his boy. Ball in the Family being filmed on the North Shore of Auckland? Sure, good fun… but it’d be a wreck for the team to drag that sideshow into things.

But that was only the start of the manufactured drama because a day before RJ Hampton was announced the rumours were that Carmelo Anthony, yes the future Hall of Famer himself, was about to sign with the Breakers. I mean, that dude stayed overtime in New York because his wife only wanted to live in the big city. Before that he didn’t think Denver was big enough for him. He left the OKC Thunder because he was too competitive, too assured of his own abilities, to accept a lesser role. And that guy would want to play in the NBL all of a sudden? Snowball’s chance in hell, buddy.

These are the dramas that are following the Breakers around at the moment. At best we get RJ Hampton jumping aboard and signalling a bright new future (he’s gonna get a two year deal which means there’ll be compensation coming NZB’s way if he’s drafted). At worst we have the NZ H*rald writing about the Carmelo links and legitimising them based on what was probably a completely made up claim in the first place which they were even so sloppy as to embed in the piece. Which was quickly adapted with comments from the Breakers organisation thoroughly dismantling the claim but that’s proof that they wrote the damn thing without even speaking to a member of the Breakers organisation. Absolutely and utterly insane… although don’t go using this as a way to build up St*ff.co.nz in comparison because they’re no better even if they got the W this time around. The ridiculous way Steven Adams is covered in this country is proof of that.

Enough of a moan. You’re already reading a Niche Cache article so no need to say the line about us trying to fix the chat out here. That’s just the strange situation we find ourselves in. A world where a top future draft pick is playing for the Breakers isn’t as far away from the world where Carmelo Anthony would consider them as it used to be and when you’ve got owners to put up billboards for LeBron James and take photos with Barack Obama on the golf course then chasing after that hype train is part and parcel. Sometimes that leaves you feeling like they care more about how things appear to an indifferent American audience of jocks and sports jerks but sometimes they serve up a genuinely exciting signing. It is what it is.

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