RJ Hampton, an elite high school prospect, let the world know the college basketball route wasn’t for him in late May. Instead of playing for a blue-blood program, he will begin his professional basketball journey for the NBL’s New Zealand Breakers.
The 6-foot-5 guard made the announcement on ESPN’s Get Up television program.
Texas Tech Basketball target RJ Hampton decides to forgo college basketball and play professionally in the Australian NBL for the New Zealand Breakers pic.twitter.com/ReplZVH2Nl
— Eric Kelly (@EricKellyTV) May 28, 2019
Prior to the show, only the best programs were on the talented young man’s radar. While it shifted here and there, those schools included the Duke Blue Devils, Kentucky Wildcats, Memphis Tigers and Kansas Jayhakws.
Immediately after the segment aired, the takes on social media began. Pro-player rights folk celebrated the move without anything other than surface-level evaluation. Those who see the risk, while weighing the reward, were a bit more spectacle. The track record of top rated high school players skipping college to play overseas isn’t the best, though it would be insincere if we failed to acknowledge the level of players who left the states in search of an alternative path.
There simply hasn’t yet been a projected can’t-miss NBA prospect who has taken this option over college before. Semantics over who was projected to be selected when can be argued, working in either the pro or con direction, but not only is the sample-size to properly measure success and failure lacking, but it’s missing an insanely hyped high school kid who was earnestly projected as a top two or three NBA Draft selection.
For Hampton, who isn’t expected to be a top three pick, he was honest about his situation.
“My No. 1 goal is to play in the NBA,” Hampton told ESPN. “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. Both of my parents went to college. My mom got her master’s degree. Education is a big thing in our family, but this is about focusing 100 percent on basketball. You can always go back to college, but there’s only a short window as an athlete where you can play professional basketball, and I want to take advantage of that. I think that challenging yourself on a daily basis is the best way to improve.”
Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay, Mitchell Robinson and so on, all skipped college for different reasons. These will be the three players most often used as a comparison point for RJ Hampton, but it will absent the obvious differences in how each player was projected to do at the NBA level.
And that’s what this conversation is truly about. Hampton bypassing the traditional route is still an outlier maneuver. He’s not blazing new trails for guys coming after him, even if people in his camp are suggesting as such. This new-wave narrative was spun each time before the guard, despite this alternative actually being taken remaining as rare as uncooked steak.
Hampton is making a professional basketball decision. Yes. Of course. The ability to begin his earning potential early, which college basketball can’t offer, is clearly part of the deal. Still, this isn’t the deathblow to the sport so many will suggest it is.
If the FBI scandal hasn’t hurt the NCAA’s ability to profit under the ideal of amateurism, the fifth ranked talent in a recruiting class opting for New Zealand is unlikely to create an impact outside a few days of people yelling at clouds.
“I think he’s ready, that’s why we weren’t going back to high school,” Rod Hampton, RJ’s father, told 247Sports. “It’s never been a dream of his to play college basketball, it’s been a dream of his to use college basketball as a vehicle to get to the NBA. … He’s playing against grown men. He’s learning how to practice like a pro, and learning how to do everything like a pro and I just think those options outweigh going to college.”
And that’s where the difference likely rests for RJ Hampton, as well as those few who might eventually follow suit. However, it needs to be noted harshly, that’s it. It’s the number of options players who don’t want to go to college now have.
Basketball, at all levels, is different in 2019. Options aren’t limited to just college basketball, especially not for those who have zero interest in spending a single semester pretending to be a student-athlete — which is clearly a preference based decision each prospect will weigh on a case-by-case basis.
Options aren’t the evil, either. Not for the players or the coaches or the sport that just lost one of the best high school players in the country. There’s zero winners when forcing anyone into a situation they don’t want. Equally as important, to have coaches oversee young men who don’t want to be there.
Hampton supposedly had offers in China, tested well in high school, and had his pick of pretty much any college hoops program he wanted. All of which is inherently great… for him. But that’s it. That’s the line in the sand. This isn’t about altruistic ideals or grand alterations to college hoops’ forever turning cogs. At least not until there’s sincere evidence to show this path less traveled has heavier traffic year-over-year.
Until then, there’s no reason to hold our collective breath.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared on Forbes, but has been republished under the original author’s name at CBBToday thanks to the publisher-contributor agreement.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade at various outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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