Taking a closer look at 2020 NBA Draft prospect RJ Hampton and exploring if he’s the high-risk, high-reward prospect many project him to be.
When RJ Hampton made the bold move of trekking the Down Under for his post-high school year, following the footsteps of Terrance Ferguson three years earlier, he did not foresee that another American sensation would eventually overshadow him in the Australian League (NBL).
While Hampton didn’t have the surging draft stock of his contemporary, LaMelo Ball, he still showed flashes of why he was so highly regarded throughout the amateur circuit, as well as the growth that excites about what lies ahead.
His team, the New Zealand Breakers, had a turbulent season that featured star (former NBAer) Scotty Hopson nursing a knee injury for five weeks, starter Corey Webster being rented off to a Chinese League team, another starter in Robert Loe fracturing his skull from a LaMelo Ball elbow, and midseason pickup Glen Rice Jr. getting into a fight outside an Auckland bar.
Hampton himself only appeared in 15 of the Breakers’ 28 contests due to a hip flexor injury. As is the case with most teenagers in professional leagues, his impact on the team was likely negative. New Zealand went 11-2 in the games that Hampton missed, as opposed to 4-11 when he suited up (mind that RJ’s absence coincided with Hopson’s return from injury, so take that as you will).
Overall, the Breakers were 7.2 points per 36 minutes better when he sat, which ranked second-worst on the team. This may seem like a disappointment, but the fact that Hampton wasn’t completely overwhelmed in the NBL at such a young age is an impressive feat by itself. Now that he has all but entered the 2020 NBA Draft, what can we expect from RJ Hampton going forward?
The main appeal with Hampton is his rare combination of size and speed for a point guard. He runs the floor like a madman and lives at the rim in the half-court through hard straight-line dribble drives.
There aren’t many guys in the league who gallop their way to the basket this swiftly. Once he intrudes the paint, Hampton uses long strides to elude rotating defenders, and he has the size to finish around them with speed layups.
Look at the explosion here on this off-foot righty lay-in, or here off two feet. Despite this, he only shot 56.5 percent in the restricted area on the season – far below the NBL league average of 64.8 percent – but I still project him to be a good finisher in the NBA once he improves at a few areas (strength, touch around the rim, his left-hand).
RJ’s height also comes in great handy for kicking the ball out to perimeter shooters. I can very easily imagine him flourishing in a drive-and-kick system. Hampton’s got a bit of an infatuation for making airborne passes right now, sort of like he’s trying to do a Derek Jeter impression. He’ll surely tone this down as he matures – for every moment of brilliance, there will be certain plays that make you want to scratch your eyes out.
I would say that RJ Hampton is currently developing at the finer aspects of being a point guard. His skill and instincts for the position are a lot more advanced than you’d expect given his physical tools, but drafting him would still be more of a long-term play. Hampton’s handle is a creative one (although a bit loose) that generally keeps defenders guessing. His pet move – a nasty left-to-right crossover – is pretty quick and covers a lot of ground. RJ also features a series of hesitations, other crossovers, and in-and-outs in his repertoire.
Like many rangy guards, however, Hampton isn’t the best at changing directions, and he’s prone to getting his pocket picked. Good luck trying to beat NBA defenders playing so upright.
The same goes for fitting into a team environment on offense. Hampton showed glimpses as an effective off-ball weapon for the Breakers, but overall, he was mostly a passive bystander spotting up. When he had the ball in his hands, Hampton demonstrated a solid capability at operating the pick-and-roll. He’s very good at influencing defenders to his advantage, and he’ll often catch them overplaying the screen.
He’s got a natural sense of timing up a drive with the rolling big, which you don’t see often in young guards. And as the season progressed, Hampton gradually improved his feel for changing speeds and rhythm in these situations.
Here in New Zealand’s first preseason game, Andrew Bogut thwarts RJ’s pick-and-roll and forces him to pull the ball out. A few weeks later and Hampton would have forced him to commit and made the right decision.
That said, there’s a big difference between your run-of-the-mill orchestrator and a passing maestro who slices up defenses. While Hampton has a solid idea of spacing and court awareness, he isn’t necessarily manipulating the defense in real-time. He’ll make reads that are more about knowing where his teammates will be rather than reacting to the game action.
At the same time, he’ll fire some dimes to cutting teammates (even if he has the occasional blind spot). In the preseason game against Oklahoma City, for example, Hampton makes a nice read on a widely used set known as a “Spain Pick-and-Roll”, where a third player sets a down screen for the roll-man. The Breakers run it again in the second half, but this time, the third defender plays it better by not allowing Brandon Ashley (the roll-man) to get behind him. Hampton tries to squeeze in the lob anyway and turns it over as a result.
This sequence to me encapsulates where RJ Hampton is right now as a point guard: he cleared the beginner/intermediate level courses of playmaking with flying colors, but he’s got a long way to go before he can diagram and dissect complex schemes in the NBA. This is fine for now (after all, he’s 19). Because defenders are so wary of his resounding athletic ability, Hampton will always have relatively wide passing windows available to him.
However, as he found his way on to opposing scouting reports in the NBL, Hampton’s dynamism began to fade when the book on him became “go under on screens.”
This brings to light RJ’s most glaring weaknesses: his jump shot. It isn’t broken by any means, but he’ll need to put a lot of work into his shot for it to become remotely passable. Despite his deficiencies, Hampton will often fire without much hesitation and looks pretty comfortable doing so.
On the other hand, he shoots a really flat ball (which usually doesn’t translate to the NBA line) and converted on only 67.9 percent of his free throws for the season (on a small sample of just 28 attempts, and he made 76.2 percent of his FTs across AAU and FIBA play). Hampton also seems to have a lot of his short and intermediate shots spin out of the rim, which makes me question his natural touch.
Once defenders started to catch on to this shortcoming, Hampton’s offensive attack was greatly neutered. It wasn’t just in pick-and-rolls, either. Look at how early opposing players began to anticipate Hampton driving – straight out of the Ben Simmons or Giannis Antetokounmpo playbook.
Drop coverages will likely give him problems due to the lack of a pull-up jumper threat. Hiding a shaky shooter in the NBA has become almost as daunting of a task as surviving with a plodding big man against a five-out system.
There was a moment from a November game against Perth that may help the case against high schoolers taking their talents immediately to the pro ranks. Just five minutes into the game, Hampton attempts an early shot-clock three when the defender goes under in the pick-and-roll. He then proceeds to get pulled and doesn’t get back into the action for nearly a quarter.
This illustrates how playing for the Breakers might not even have been the most ideal situation for RJ in terms of pushing the envelope development-wise. Contrast that to someone like Anthony Edwards, who got pretty much all-he-could-eat on a lousy college team. At least he gained valuable experience trying to guard far superior players than he’d ever see at the college level.
Like many young guards, RJ Hampton is a complete sieve on the defensive end of the floor. He rarely sits down in a stance and gets overpowered by any type of physical force. If 5-foot-10 Casper Ware can bully him like this, then I cringe at the thought of what NBA guys will do with him.
Hampton will die on most screens, and he takes sloppy routes chasing around shooters. In help defense, Hampton will often either lose his man by ball-watching or miss the weakside rotation by zeroing in too closely on his assignment. It’s quite the commonplace for inexperienced players to get caught in-between like this.
The good news is that RJ definitely has the potential to be an impactful defender. He’ll use his length to snare down some breathtaking rebounds over overstretched big men, and he gets his fair share of deflections. He should be a menace in the passing lanes in due time. In the most hyped game of the season, Hampton clearly showed that he has higher gears that he can reach when he’s amped up and motivated. With his tools, I would say that it would be a disappointment if he never became above-average defensively.
So how will RJ Hampton’s NBA career unfold? To me, the two most pressing areas of improvement for him are the jump shot and strength/physique. The shooting would drastically open things up for Hampton, while also helping him be a more scalable player. Adding strength will be crucial not just on the defensive end, but on offense as well. Instead of always attacking the defender’s outside shoulder in the paint, Hampton needs to add an element of physicality to his game.
Not only would this drastically improve his finishing, but it would also help alleviate the low foul-drawing rate (just 3.3 free attempts per 36 minutes). Sometimes brute force is the simplest, yet most effective option. At the beginning of the season, we saw brief flashes of a post-game as well, so maybe that could be something in Hampton’s bag as time goes on.
I see a wide range of potential outcomes for RJ Hampton. Although there are many aspects of his game that need shoring up, he doesn’t really have any inherent flaws that would put a cap on his upside. A reasonable downside scenario would be a Dante Exum type career: a poor shooter who never finds a happy medium between flamboyance and steadiness for a coach to trust him.
If everything breaks right for Hampton, I could him becoming a second-banana type on offense with plus-defense on the other end (think possibly a lite-version of Penny Hardaway). Perhaps the median and lower outcomes for RJ aren’t too pretty, but I wouldn’t balk at drafting him just outside of the top 5 for that sliver of upside, which makes me higher on him than the general consensus it appears.