In the grand stratosphere of college basketball, the news of top-10 recruit R.J. Hampton deciding to play professionally in New Zealand instead of at Kansas, Texas Tech or Memphis doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s not going to cost anyone in college basketball their job, sell less season-ticket packages or prompt a ratings drop.
Hampton is a really good high school basketball player who is simply choosing to play professionally rather than collegiately. It’s something we should be used to after Brandon Jennings (Italy), Jeremy Tyler (Israel), Emmanuel Mudiay (China), Terrance Ferguson (Australia) and a few others. Finding an alternative to college is on the fast track from anomaly to normalcy. Hampton’s decision is emblematic of the attitudes of high school basketball players toward college as we hurtle toward potentially seismic changes coming to the NBA draft in 2022.
Think of Hampton’s decision not as some paradigm shift where dozens of players will follow him overseas. Instead, with the 2022 draft likely the first one where high school players will be able to go directly to the NBA, consider it the start of a flood of players following their hearts and wallets. Hampton didn’t have academic issues like Ferguson and he wasn’t forced to Australia with NCAA issues like Brian Bowen last year. He’s the poster child for the reality that college coaches — and some media — don’t want to hear. The allure of playing college basketball has dipped precipitously in the past decade. And there’s no uptick in sight.
“The singular difference from now and when this track was open a long time ago,” said an NBA scout, referencing the direct-to-NBA route, which ended in 2005, “is the absolute deterioration of the value of a college scholarship in the eyes of the players and their families. These guys don’t want to be in school and don’t care. The carrot of education has been devalued.”
There’s a good guess why the priorities of prospects have shifted. The parents have followed the money. Consider that since 2005, high-end coaching salaries have nearly tripled to as much as $10 million annually, the NCAA television contract has skyrocketed into the billions and a boom in conference-specific cable content has poured tens of millions annually into leagues like the SEC and Big Ten. For the players, they get a few table scraps like cost of attendance and some more charter flights and nicer gyms. But the alleged draw to college is still the scholarship. And it’s going to become increasingly clear when the NBA rule changes back, just how stale that carrot is for top prospects.
“Everyone thinks LaVar Ball is a one-in-a-billion parent,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Corey Evans. “But that mentality and thinking to get paid right now is in play with a lot of the parents of these elite prospects.”
Hampton’s path shows that. He reclassified to leave high school early a month ago so he could get to college faster. But that wasn’t fast enough. He told Evans that he considered playing professionally the “safer route for players,” as opposed to college. Hampton’s father, Rod, summed up the essence of an overseas venture over an eight-month college pit stop with a side order of education. “It’s never been a dream of his to play college basketball,” Rod Hampton told 247 Sports. “It’s been a dream of his to use college basketball as a vehicle to get to the NBA.”
So how many top high school players will be skipping school and attempting to go to the NBA once it’s formally allowed? There were nine high school entrants back in 2005. But so much has changed with exposure and social media that a mass exodus is expected. I guessed 50 players will declare annually to another NBA scout on Thursday. His response? “Maybe even more, to be honest with you.” He added: “Everyone is going to throw their name in there. I can only imagine how it works: ‘He declared, so I’m declaring.’ You get the peer-pressure thing. It doesn’t cost them or hurt them to get the feedback. I would if I was a kid.”
This is what the sport of college basketball feels unprepared for as it faces a historic talent drain. Would the dozens of players all stay in the draft? Of course not. There are only 60 draft spots. For now, anyway, but it feels like that could get bigger as there were already 233 early entry attempts from college this year — a number that’s more than double the 109 in 2005 — with expanded rosters (17 players thanks to a pair of two-way deals) and a thriving G League that could accommodate them.
No one knows how many high school kids will declare when the one-and-done rule is gone. But it’s clear that far more than nine players will stay in the draft. It’s nostalgic to look back at how efficient player declarations were in the last preps-to-pros era, as just six high school players who declared for the draft in a seven-year span weren’t selected. How quaint. There were notables like Lenny Cooke (2002), Taj McDavid (1996) and Tony Key (2001) in that group.
So what will the 2022 NBA draft look like? It’s hard to say because everything will be so different. The new route is going to change nearly everything about the sport in America — the way NBA teams evaluate, college programs recruit and the method in which players choose both high schools and AAU programs. Virtually everything will look different.
Will Hampton’s journey impact how kids decide? He’s arguably the best talent of those players who went overseas, as he’s ranked in the same range as Mudiay. Hampton will be considered along with Georgia’s Anthony Edwards and North Carolina’s Cole Anthony as perhaps the first guard taken in the upcoming draft. Going to New Zealand won’t impact him much, as NBA teams have plenty of budget to fly overseas and check him out. Their low-level scouts can scour every second of video. New Zealand in the NBA’s eyes isn’t any different than playing college ball in Spokane or Tallahassee.
College basketball isn’t going to die, but it appears destined to lose some oxygen. As long as there’s a bracket, gambling and student sections, the sport will muster the attention of America every March. Basically, despite the NCAA, its members and coaches, the sport will continue to succeed. One NBA scout pointed out why kids still value going to college: “Some people still like the idea of the brand building and March Madness.”
This is a warning that there’s a new generation of kids who see college as more of an impediment than a benefit. The NCAA has begun discussions on allowing players to monetize their name, image and likeness. It’s a baby step, but an important one as they lose ground in a competitive field.
“It’s big especially for the top-level kids, that gives them an option to be able to profit,” said an NBA scout. “That’s the biggest step to make that change.”
College coaches and the impotent organization that represents them, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, should also take a long look at the rule the Rice Commission shuttered last year that would allow programs to hire more on-floor workout coaches. Limiting the amount of hours kids can practice in the offseason and the amount of people that can work them out is antiquated, counter-productive and indicative of the lack of common sense and leadership in the sport. The NCAA handbook should be subtitled: “Intense jargon to diminish the student-athlete experience.”
The parents have figured out that while NCAA president Mark Emmert and NABC president Jim Haney pocket millions to preserve the status quo, they’ve figured out there are other options for their kids’ market value.
“I think that’s a big key,” an NBA scout said. “Parents understand the value more and options more. I think they’ve done a good job, overall, educating them on what’s out there, their value and worth. They have power.”
R.J. Hampton exercised his power and is headed to New Zealand. It’s a small step in the college basketball world that won’t leave much of a mark. But once 2022 hits, the attitudes that informed Hampton’s decision could lead to a lot of players walking right past college basketball.
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