OKLAHOMA CITY — The numbers didn’t show it, but the hordes of NBA front office personnel in attendance weren’t really there looking for those anyway.
They were there to see the hypersonic first step, the spring-loaded bounce and the complete skillset of likely 2020 lottery pick R.J. Hampton, and he delivered in flashes on Thursday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With almost 60 scouts and NBA front office personnel in attendance, Hampton finished with 8 points on 2-of-11 shooting plus 5 assists to just 2 turnovers in 30 minutes as his New Zealand Breakers fell to the Thunder, 110-84. Two nights ago against the Memphis Grizzlies, with an estimated 100 NBA-types in the arena, Hampton struggled with 2 points on 1-8 shooting and just 1 assist in 20 minutes.
“I don’t really think about that,” Hampton said of the scouts watching. “I’m just trying to get my team the win. I’m trying to help them at all times, be the best they can be and be the best I can be.”
Against the Thunder, despite the lackluster statline, Hampton controlled the offense, sliced through the defense and had opportunities at the rim that he didn’t convert.
“There’s a lot of room for growth,” Hampton said Thursday. “I think finishing around contact, and just running the team, being out there and being 100 percent all the time.”
Early in the first half, he put a slick crossover on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to dart into the lane and found a teammate with a gorgeous wrap-around no-look pass, bringing oohs and ahhs from the crowd. In the second half he produced another eye-catching moment, blowing by center Justin Patton for a layup.
“He looked good, man,” Chris Paul said. “I watched some film on him this summer after the trade happened and I saw this was one of the preseason games. He’s very talented and I see why all the scouts and GMs came to see him play.”
For Hampton, it was a look at what presumably awaits in the future. A five-star recruit, Hampton elected to bypass college and sign with the Breakers of the National Basketball League (based in Australia), saying he didn’t want to “juggle books and basketball.”
The Breakers’ stops in Memphis and OKC gave the full spectrum of opposing NBA talent — a fellow youngster in Ja Morant and a sage veteran in Chris Paul.
“I’ve looked up to Chris Paul since I was five or six years old and just to have him on the court, guard him, him guard me, it was just a dream come true,” Hampton said.
At just 18 years old, there’s plenty to build on for Hampton, with scouts primarily focusing on improving his strength and being more NBA ready on the defensive end. The skillset is there, with a fluid handle, a smooth jumper and quality mechanics to go with explosive athleticism.
For Hampton, though, the experience with the Breakers is about learning how to be a pro. He already talks like one, keeping sentences short in a staccato coach-speak style and smartly redirecting questions about his future back to the present.
“[I’m learning] just how to be a professional,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of guys kind of take me under their wing and just show me different things. I’m 18 — they’ve been playing basketball longer than I have and they can show me different things — so I just take it in and listen.”
The NBL has become a popular alternative for hyped prospects to get a taste of the pro game, make some money and prepare for the NBA. Likely 2020 lottery pick LaMelo Ball is playing for the Illawarra Hawks this season, and Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson — and close friend of Hampton — spent a season with the Adelaide 36ers before being picked 21st overall in 2017.
“[Ferguson] said it really prepared him and got him really ready at the professional level,” Hampton said. “The [NBL] pro league is no joke and you have to be mentally strong and I think he did that and I’m doing that too.”
It’s a unique path and one that comes with challenges. It’s a long way from home and a new culture a new way of life to adapt to, while trying to develop as a teenage professional. The Breakers’ season officially starts in a week and runs through February, and from there it’ll be about making a decision on what’s next.
That’s probably the NBA, but like he did on Thursday with scouts and executives gawking at his every move, Hampton is trying to stay in the moment and embrace the opportunity and experience.
“Yeah, it’s really fun,” Hampton said with a smile. “I’m having a lot of fun.”