The path to becoming a star in the NBA comes in many shapes and forms. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant took the high-school-to-pro route which no longer exists as an option. Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant went with the new one-and-done option. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dirk Nowitzki went straight from overseas stars to the NBA.
But of all these paths, and the ones we didn’t mention like staying college and developing there, none include going from high school in the United States to overseas then coming back and becoming a star in the NBA. It’s never happened before, which makes R.J. Hampton’s decision to choose that route so much more interesting.
Hampton, the No. 5 overall recruit in ESPN’s Top 100, has decided to forgo college opportunities with the likes of Kansas, Memphis, Kentucky and all the other biggest schools and will instead play for the NBL’s New Zealand Breakers. It’s an interesting decision considering the success players like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and others had building brands playing in college last year, but even more troubling is the historical challenges other players have had taking this route.
Recently, and most notably, Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson took similar chances. Jennings was the first in 2008, and played in Italy for a year. Mudiay went to China and Furgeson played in Australia. All three were drafted in the first round, so that’s a success in a sense, but none emerged as stars in the NBA, at least not yet. Jennings has been a journeyman in the NBA and is currently without a team, Mudiay has averaged 11.8 points and 4.2 assists in his career and Ferguson has been a non-factor with the Thunder in his first two years in the league. Mudiay and Ferguson still have time to develop, but so far it hasn’t been a star-studded welcome to the league.
Of course, their paths don’t dictate Hampton’s. He’s a different person with a different game, different people around him, and different opportunities. He could go to New Zeland and improve enough to enter the NBA as a ready-made star. But he could do the same in the U.S. and get more coverage because, let’s face it, New Zealand basketball highlights don’t make waves over here.
Hampton is betting on himself with his move and getting paid a year before the other members of his class. However, given the history of this decision, he’s facing a tall mountain to become a star in the NBA and break a trend with 10 years of history on his side.