By Samantha Pell, a high school sports reporter for The Washington Post
RJ Hampton had long been recruited by the blue-blood programmes of college basketball, and eventually he winnowed his choices to Kansas, Memphis and Texas Tech. But the fifth-ranked prospect in the Class of 2019 had also begun to consider an alternative option, and about a month ago he decided it was in his best interest to buck the traditional path.
In a surprise announcement, the 6-foot-5 (1.98m), 188-pound (85kg) guard from Little Elm High School in Texas said he would forgo college and instead prepare for the 2020 NBA draft by signing a professional contract with the New Zealand Breakers of the Australia-based National Basketball League.
With his decision, Hampton becomes the latest player to choose an alternate route to the NBA. The landscape is changing near the end of basketball's one-and-done era, which has prevented pro prospects from entering the draft until a year after their high school class has graduated.
"It was just a path that was different than college," Hampton said in a phone interview. "I'll always kind of not necessarily miss college basketball, but college basketball is fun to me. I enjoy watching it and stuff like that, but at the same time college basketball is not my main goal. My main goal is the NBA."
Hampton said he was inspired to go overseas after watching the success of Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic, who played professionally in Spain from age 14 until being drafted into the NBA last year at 19.
"The way he came into the NBA so ready and so poised really showed, and that's why he's up for Rookie of the Year and that's why he had such a great season," Hampton said. "You could really see why the reason he's so good at such a young age is that he played pro basketball."
Hampton hopes his move sparks a trend for other high school players, but he understands that with the one-and-done era nearly over, times are already changing. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said the 2022 draft probably will be the first to allow players to be eligible straight out of high school since the league instituted the rule starting with the 2006 draft.
"I think some players next year will definitely look into the overseas option, but I think in the next two years anyway, kids will be able to go [to the NBA] straight out of high school," Hampton said.
Hampton, who said he chose the Australian league in part because New Zealand is English-speaking, isn't the first player to bypass college to play overseas, with Brandon Jennings, Terrance Ferguson and Emmanuel Mudiay among the notable prospects to do so in recent years. However, Hampton is the first to take the international route to prepare for the NBA without any concerns about academic eligibility in college.
ESPN college basketball commentator Jay Bilas said he believes it is unlikely there will be players following Hampton's path before the one-and-done era is over.
"It is just a choice that he is making that is available to him, but I don't think it rings some alarm bell or canary in a coal mine about everybody making a break to places overseas," Bilas said. "You are not going to see some mass exodus of people going to Australia."
But Hampton's choice is an indicator of the continued challenge facing the NCAA, particularly once the one-and-done rule is no longer in place, as more and more people speak out against the organisation's strict rules that prevent players from being paid or profiting off their name, image and likeness. That's where leagues such as the NBL have seen an opportunity and stepped in to offer an alternative.
"Anytime you have a high-level, ranked player like RJ, homegrown guys that are leaving the country to go play somewhere else, I think they have to take a look at if they have to make a change," said Matt Walsh, the Breakers' part-owner and managing director. "At the end of the day, the family and the player felt like we gave him the best chance to accomplish his goal, which is to be the No 1 pick in next year's draft."
Walsh said Hampton signed a two-year contract, and the team will be eligible to receive an US$800,000 buyout from any NBA team that selects Hampton in the first round of the draft. Hampton signed with the Breakers through an NBL programme called "Next Stars" that gives an alternative pathway to the NBA for players who don't want to go to college. Walsh would not confirm how much Hampton would make playing for the Breakers but told Bloomberg that the standard contract for a player in the programme is US$100,000, and Hampton's deal would "far surpass that."
"I just think that is a such a cool thing for him to be brave enough to not just go with what the 'normal route' is," Walsh said. "We are thrilled to have him."