RJ Hampton's decision to forgo college and join the New Zealand Breakers is already paying dividends.
Joining the Breakers to get a taste of professional basketball under his belt before declaring for the 2020 NBA Draft, the young American phenom will get to test himself against the NBA's best much sooner than he expected.
In October, Hampton and the Breakers will travel to the United States to take on the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder in two pre-season matches, the Australian National Basketball League confirmed this week.
Speaking to the Herald, the 18-year-old Hampton said it was an exciting prospect to test himself against the NBA's elite. He highlighted the Thunder's Kiwi star Steven Adams as one of the players he most wanted to test himself against.
"That's one of the match ups I'm really looking forward to," Hampton said.
"I feel like if I can go at him and compete and finish through contact well against him, I feel like I'll be ready for almost anybody defending-wise."
Adams, 25, has been a staple in the Thunder's line up since he joined the league in 2012. In recent years, he's established himself as one of the game's elite centres and one of the toughest players in the league. However, during the NBA offseason, Adams' name has come up time and again in trade rumours and there's always a chance he could be moved before the Breakers get to Oklahoma City.
Hampton remained hopeful Adams would still be on the Thunder's roster when the sides meet.
"I hope he is [there] so I can see how I stack up against him and finish at the rim," Hampton admitted.
"He's a great player, huge body, tremendous competitor, so I think me and my guys will be excited to go up against him."
It's the second straight year the Breakers have been involved in the pre-season exchange, after testing the Phoenix Suns in a close loss last year. This time around, they're likely to face a much sterner test in the Oklahoma City Thunder, who feature Adams and former league MVP Russell Westbrook, and the Memphis Grizzles who have a reputation as one of the league's toughest franchises.
The match against the Grizzlies will provide an interesting test for Hampton in particular as he goes head-to-head with his friend and fellow point guard Ja Morant, who was selected with the second overall pick in this year's draft.
With Hampton projected as a top 10 pick in next year's draft, the match up against Morant gives him an early opportunity to give scouts a direct comparison of where his level of play is.
"Me and Ja are real cool, I've known him for a little bit," Hampton said. "Going up against him is going to be fun, and it'll be good just to see what the NBA game and the kind of play they play is all about.
"I'm really excited to go out there and compete."
The Texas native was a five-star recruit coming out of Little Elm High School and knocked back offers to join some of the top collegiate programmes in the States this year. Instead, he'll spend the year getting a feeling for professional basketball in the ANBL, and is expected to arrive in New Zealand in August to link up with the team.
While his main focus is to continue his development and improve his stock ahead of next year's draft, he said helping the Breakers win a championship is high on his agenda.
Not only was Hampton's decision to sign with the Breakers a shock for the collegiate game, but it took the wider basketball world by surprise. NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted he was "a little jealous" of the ANBL for landing Hampton for the year as they were trying to establish a similar pathway to the NBA in their own development league, the G-League.
"He decided he was better off in Australia than in the G-League, I think I'm going to have to talk to Commissioner Shareef of the G-League and ask what should we be looking at differently?" he told ESPN.
"For an American player who decides: 'college isn't for me and, as RJ said, wants to spend full-time devoted to the game of basketball, that's my best chance to be in the NBA', there should be an alternative opportunity in the USA to do that."
October 9: NZ Breakers v Memphis Grizzlies; FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tennessee.
October 11: NZ Breakers v Oklahoma City Thunder; Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City.
- Dates in NZ time