As fun as it might have been watching Zion Williamson lead Duke’s quartet of freshmen through the college basketball season, you’d admit there is a bad aftertaste knowing three of them applied for the NBA Draft following the NCAA Tournament.
For some, this one-and-done business has turned men’s basketball into a quagmire, a selling-of-the-soul exercise by programs obviously not interested in committing to the student in the student-athlete equation.
However, something happened on Tuesday that serves to remind us that not everyone in the game is willing to play the game.
R.J. Hampton, a five-star recruit from Texas, passed through the recruiting meat grinder just like all his pals in the Class of 2019. But instead of emerging the possession of Kansas, Memphis or Texas Tech he announced on ESPN’s “Get Up” that he will play professionally in New Zealand.
Hampton has signed a one-year contract with the New Zealand Breakers, a pro team based out of New Zealand and Australia.
No charade for Hampton. No disingenuous dorm room. No false promises to the alumni. Just cash and an invitation to the 2020 NBA Draft.
“I feel like this was the best opportunity for me to get ready for the NBA as quickly as possible because that is my ultimate goal,” he told Rivals.com. “I think that it is a safer route for players to go instead of going to college, in my opinion.”
Hampton, a 6-foot-5 guard, is already something of a trendsetter. His age placed him in the Class of 2020, but he chose in April to jump up a year to better amp his game and speed his path to the NBA.
A number of women’s basketball players have left college to play overseas in preparation for the WNBA Draft. And now Hampton joins the likes of Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay, Terrance Ferguson and Brian Bowen in foregoing college, the conventional route to the NBA.
“I expect to get a whole pro experience without being in the NBA,” Hampton told Rivals.com. “I want to live like a pro, play and prepare myself like one, too.”
You remember Ferguson? He was all set to go to Arizona but decided at the last minute to play a prep season in Australia. He was then selected No. 21 overall in the 2017 NBA draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Ferguson’s journey resulted in that league starting a program called “Next Stars.”
Think of it this way: Now Australian and New Zealand pro teams are competing with NCAA powerhouses for the cream of the crop, offering a more honest experience than the college game.
However, the one-and-done days are about to end. Tired of the insanity, the NBA is set to reduce the draft-eligible age to 18 in time for the 2022 draft.
So the Hamptons and Williamsons of the next generation won’t be forced to go to New Zealand or college for one year in order to qualify to play in the NBA. You’ll recall it used to be this way. Why do you think Lebron James and Kobe Bryant didn’t play college basketball? They didn’t have to until the rule was changed in 2006.
And that will drastically change the face of college basketball, funneling the best high school talent away from it every year.
Too bad, so sad, Coach K.
A few moments after making his announcement, Hampton posted a doctored photo of himself in a Breakers uniform. In the background was this inscription: “Big bad got em big mad.”
We love the sentiment. This was Hampton’s way of thumbing his nose at the NCAA aristocracy and the putrid world of cunning and corruption it now wades in.
Still, it will serve only as a minor inconvenience to Kansas. It will not alter their game. Next up. Kids will still go to college. Some may even do it for one season, just like before. It’s just unlikely the superstar high school prodigies who don’t want the BMOC experience will waste their time with Bill Self.
The NCAA has even commented it would rather kids commit to the NBA than blowing smoke in college. But just because the NCAA is saying it doesn’t been the highly competitive coaches are thinking it.
“There needs to be the ability for a young person and his family to say, you know, what I really want to do is just become a professional ball player,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said at the 2018 Final Four. “And they ought to be provided that opportunity if they don’t want to go to college.”
While choosing a path overseas is the way to go for some, it’s likely not going to resonate with the majority of high school players who are reluctant to take such a drastic first step. So until the rules change, until they are able to jump directly to the NBA, they will stay true to the system and one-and-done their way into the Draft Lottery.
“My dream has never been to play college basketball,” Hampton said on ESPN. “My dream has always been to get to the next level and I think this was the best route for me to live like a pro and play with grown men every day and not kind of have to juggle books and basketball and focus on my main goal.”