AUCKLAND, New Zealand — A little more than a year ago, RJ Hampton was a junior in high school playing in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in Dallas against players his own age. Fast-forward to today and he’s competing every night against ex-NBA players and athletes five to 10 years older than him in the Australian National Basketball League.
Hampton was a top-10 recruit coming out of high school and announced on May 28 that he was playing for the New Zealand Breakers instead of choosing from among his final schools: Memphis, Kansas or Texas Tech. “I think what really made me want to come over here is the fact that I get to work on my game 24/7, all day, every day. I’m playing with grown men and I get to play against professionals, and it’s just preparing me for the next level,” Hampton told Yahoo Sports.
Twenty days after Hampton’s announcement, LaMelo Ball committed to playing for the Illawarra Hawks of the Australian NBL. The two former five-star recruits instantly made the NBL must-watch basketball.
“Me and Melo are close. We talk two to three times every week … not just about basketball, but we’re just friends,” Hampton said.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between the two players. Both are 18-year-old point guards who are long and athletic with speed in transition and quickness in half-court sets. But in reality, the two players are very different.
LaMelo is the younger brother of Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball and is part of a reality show on Facebook. LaMelo, who is in Australia with his manager, launches piles of threes and makes flashy passes to teammates. Hampton is in New Zealand with his parents and younger brother Ryan, living a fairly normal life. Hampton is a true floor general with a much better downhill game than Ball’s.
“I’m just trying to be a better point guard. I’m trying to be a leader at every aspect on the court. In high school, if you’re a top-ranked kid, you’re going to be able to do whatever you want. When you come to the pros you don’t have to change your game but refine your game, and I feel like I’ve taken that jump to be a leader and someone the guys can look to,” Hampton said.
Sure, LaMelo had a triple-double (25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) against Hampton’s NZ Breakers last Saturday, but he also needed 28 shots and was minus-13 for the game. Hampton only played 24 minutes but had 12 points, four rebounds and two assists and was plus-9. It’s taken Hampton four games to even get 28 shots, but his shot selection is more conservative and he’s committed to getting his teammates involved.
There has been coverage of LaMelo Ball out of Australia on a weekly basis, but “Hampton” was the name 8,400 fans were yelling Saturday night. A “We want RJ!” chant filled the arena after Illawarra came within seven points early in the fourth quarter with Hampton on the bench. Once Hampton re-entered the game, the NZ Breakers finished strong and won 91-79.
“I knew this was a big game with me and LaMelo playing each other, so I definitely came out with some intensity and just wanted to play the best I could and help my team get that ‘W,’” Hampton told Yahoo Sports.
Hampton is already showing up in early mocks as a top-10 selection in the 2020 draft, and several teams have made their way to New Zealand to see the elite prospect.
“R.J.’s first step is so explosive it’s tough to guard. There’s a reason why so many of us are making the trip over here to see him play. He’s a modern-day NBA guard, that’s for sure,” an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports.
The 6-foot-5 point guard will finish his season and return to the States in mid-February. One thing is for sure: Hampton believes he’s ready for the next level. “I’ve been working so hard to get to this point and I’m not going to stop working until that night I hear my name called.”
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