THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: RJ Hampton Is Blazing His Own Trail to the NBA

The best advice RJ Hampton ever got came via DM, courtesy of Kyrie Irving. The NBA All-Star followed the high school All-American on Instagram a while back, and once they got to talking, Kyrie dropped a gem. As Hampton remembers, “He basically said, ‘Be you—don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. You’re the one that’s going to define your game.’”

If you’d heard Hampton share this story when we did, a couple of weeks before he went on ESPN to announce the next step on his path to the NBA, that message from Kyrie would’ve been echoing in your brain. That was when Hampton made clear he was ready to define his game—and his place in it—and wouldn’t be limited by precedent or expectation. As he told a national audience that morning in late May, he’s bypassing college to play professionally next season with the New Zealand Breakers of Australia’s National Basketball League. With that decision, one of the top-10 players in the 2019 class—reclassified only weeks earlier from 2020—signaled he was ready to begin his professional career, on his terms.

“Making this jump, for me, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Hampton says. “Ever since the start of this season, I’ve been thinking about reclassing to 2019—it’s just getting closer to your main goal, and my main goal is to get to the NBA. I feel like I’m just one step closer than I would be if I was going back to high school.”

It might seem like a drastic transition—from high school junior at Little Elm (TX) High to signing an overseas pro contract in a matter of weeks—but Hampton is making the jump not only supremely confident in himself, but with the full backing of his tight-knit family. That includes his pops, Rod, who played college ball at SMU before hooping in the CBA and Europe; the person most responsible for pushing RJ to become great, his mom, Markita; and his younger brother Ryan. The fam will be joining RJ on what figures to be a single-season detour, some 7,500 miles from their home outside Dallas.

“I feel good about the decision—it’s finally out, and we can move on,” Markita says. “I feel like RJ had a great last year in high school, and I just don’t feel like there was any more he could do in high school. He’s really ready for the next chapter.”

If the next chapter’s anything like the previous ones, fans in Auckland are in for a treat. The 6-5 lead guard already has a pair of international gold medals, one from the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 squad and another from the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup. He earned that hardware (and a slew of accolades) with a game he describes as “a fast-paced player who’s going to score the ball at a fast rate, rebound, play defense, pass, just do everything, and make the game exciting.” He’s happy to elaborate on the players and skills he borrows from: Stephen Curry’s off-ball movement, LeBron’s passing and leadership, and of course Kyrie, for the way he uses his dribble to create space against bigger defenders. “To do what he’s doing at that size is incredible,” Hampton says.

Of course, what Hampton’s doing now is pretty remarkable, too: venturing into nearly uncharted territory, controlling his own basketball destiny, and earning fair market value for his work. If he feels the pressure of being a trailblazer, he doesn’t show it. He knows he’s far from a finished product—he’s focused on getting stronger and faster this season, his first competing against grown men. But with his family on board and his sense of humor intact—he says friends call him “one of the funniest people they’ve ever met”—Hampton simply seems to be enjoying the ride.


Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.

Portraits by Jaren Collins.