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Why RJ Hampton’s Decision Is A Sign That The G League Needs To Fix Their Professional Path Program

Dakota Schmidt analyzes RJ Hampton’s decision to play in Australia and looks at why the G League needs to fix their “Professional Path” program.

Basketball: USA Men’s Junior National Team Minicamp Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

On the Tuesday edition of ESPN’s “Get Up” morning program, five-star high school prospect RJ Hampton announced that he’d be forgoing college to play professionally for the New Zealand Breakers of Australia’s NBL (National Basketball League) during the 2019-20 season. That choice came despite the fact that he received offers from Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, and Memphis.

Hampton deciding to go straight from high school to overseas follows in the footsteps that have been set over the course of the past decade by Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson. While each player had the same idea, they all took different paths; Jennings headed off to Italy to play with a Euroleague squad, Mudiay went to China where he received $1.2 million while Ferguson made the trek to Australia to play in the NBL.

Among those options, Hampton obviously decided to copy the path that Ferguson took in 2016. While he’ll play in the same league as the current Thunder guard, the 2019 prospect will have a different experience. That’s due to the gains that the NBL has made over the past three years when it comes to both improving the work situation for players making it more appealing to elite American talent. The second factor comes with the league’s “Next Stars” program that was introduced in March 2018.

According to Australia’s Fox Sports outlet, the youngsters that become part of that “Next Stars” program get paid at least $50,000 (Hampton’s contract will be much larger) while also having the NBL pay for an apartment, car, flights and individual development training. Those benefits combined with the rabid fan base, solid competition and only playing 28 regular season games during a six-month long campaign definitely sounds intriguing.

While obviously not at the level of the NBA, the NBL is an extremely competitive league with a talented crop of players that feature former NCAA All-Americans and guys that had cups of coffee in the Association. In addition to that, games in the NBL have a similar style of basketball to the NBA as a lot of their squads play with an up-pace tempo. The similar style of play between the two leagues can partially explain why 2016-17 NBL Defensive Player of the Year Torrey Craig was able to make a smooth transition to the NBA.

One last benefit of the NBL’s “Next Stars” program is that the whole process is pretty clear and gives a lot of freedom to the player. First off, members of the league determine which prospects would qualify for their program, as they look for players that will likely get selected in the following year’s NBA Draft. After the league signs that prospect to a contract, each of the nine squads can make pitches to the prospect on how their organization will best be able to develop them over the course of their time in Australia. Last but not least, the prospects are able to make the final decision on which team fits best for how they want to develop as an all-around prospect.

That singular fact is probably what made the NBL’s “Next Stars” program a more intriguing idea for Hampton over the G League’s “Professional Path”. Because in terms of the “Professional Path”, the elite prospects would sign a Select Contract with the league itself in spring/early summer and then be allocated to a G League squad before the start of the following season. The mechanisms behind that allocation process weren’t specified when the G League released an FAQ on the “Professional Path” program back in late 2018.

Compared to the NBL, the “Professional Path ” program gives absolutely no freedom to the players that decide to sign that Select Contract as every step is done with the league from the signing to the mysterious allocation process. That essentially means the player will have to wait a long time just to figure extremely integral information like who their coach is going to be with and which system they’ll be playing under. For prospects that have dreams of getting selected in the lottery during the following year’s NBA draft, that process would definitely be worrying.

Does the G League have an advantage over the NBL when it comes to competing against solid NBA-caliber talent while being close to home? Absolutely. However, the funcertainty of the Professional Path in itself combined with the lack of media attention that the G League still receives makes it understandable why a player like Hampton would be wary about signing a Select Contract.

In comparison, the NBL has a pretty straight forward “Next Stars” program while having all of their games broadcasted on Australia’s Fox Sports network. Meanwhile, New Zealand natives can watch Hampton compete with the Breakers on Sky Sport. While that might not compete with the extravaganza of March Madness, playing on national television every time you step on the court should be pretty cool for a young prospect that will also be making good money.

At this moment, the more broad media attention combined with the certainty that comes from the “Next Stars” program allows the NBL to currently be a more intriguing option for young high school graduates compared to the G League. However, that definitely doesn’t mean that things are a total lost cause for the NBA’s minor league.

Just over the past few years, the G League has done an amazing job of improving in a multitude of different. That progression will be evident during the 2019-20 season as players on all 28 G League teams will be at least be making $35,000 with their games being played on a variety of online/cable outlets like Facebook Live, Twitch, ESPN+, ESPNU, NBA TV, and some local channels. Although they still stand as the fourth most popular basketball league in the country, trailing the NBA, WNBA, and NCAA, it’s continued growth has been amazing to watch.

Despite all of those gains, new G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim and other league executives will need to spend the summer making the necessary adjustments to the “Professional Path” program. Because for the program to be successful and to put additional eyeballs on the league, they’ll need to do whatever it takes to snag whomever the 2020 or 2021 equivalent of RJ Hampton rather them seeing him go to a league on the other side of the globe.

Because after this Hampton decision, the NBL definitely stands as the top dog when it comes to having a program that’s more intriguing to young prospects. Essentially, the G League just hypothetically got beat up and had their lunch money stolen by their tough Aussie classmate.

How will the league react to this tough news and make the proper adjustments to their “Professional Path” program to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Well, we’ll just have to wait over the next few weeks and months to see what happens next.