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RJ Hampton Keeps Taking Long Strides

For all of his life Hampton has ranked as one of the best young basketball players around the nation and was expected to be one of the 2020 class studs. He opted to reclassify to 2019. Then he ditched college in favor of professional ball in New Zealand. Now, he’s signed with Li-Ning and will get a signature sneaker.

RJ Hampton (Elsa/Getty Images)

As if R.J. Hampton’s life path wasn’t unique enough already, he just made another earth-shattering decision during the past few days and announced it this past Thursday. Hampton will be wearing Li-Ning sneakers on the court for the New Zealand Breakers of the NBL this next season. Not only that,the shoes he will put on will be tailor-made for him in the shape of a signature sneaker.

By the way, Hampton is barely past 18 years of age. Yikes.

Hampton is not a new name for hoops-heads around the globe. Although he’s one of the youngest talents around, he’s been making the rounds for quite some time now.

Not part of the 2019 class until this past May, when he opted to reclassify from his true-to-age 2020 class to that of this year, he is ranked as the 5th-best prospect of his chosen generation, only behind some of the most coveted youngsters from around the USA in James Wiseman, Anthony Edwards, Isaiah Stewart, and Cole Anthony.

The difference between those four and Hampton? For the biggest impact, the former will be playing college ball this season while Hampton will be facing pros in New Zealand. Yes, none of the five will be part of an NBA roster nor play professionally in American soil next season, yet Hampton will have made the jump in terms of playing-level come October.

In the day and age of “player empowerment” we’re living in, Hampton’s decision to move to NZ didn’t come as a total surprise. Reclassifying made some colleges mouth-water at the chance of getting Hampton earlier and in time to put him on the court for the 2019-20 NCAA season before inevitably losing him in June to the NBA. Turned out, Hampton’s plans were far from the collegiate route.

This doesn’t mean success is guaranteed, though. We all know the stories of other pond-jumpers like Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Terrance Ferguson. They are good-not-great players and they’re still involved in basketball to varying degrees, with a wide range of high and low outcomes and achievements linked to their names.

Getting back to the news of Hampton signing with Li-Ning, the native of Dallas, TX, has made quite another statement. It’s been said multiple brands offered him deals although he ultimately chose the Chinese brand as his shoe outfitter.

Li-Ning is not new to basketball, not even in the NBA circle. They have multiple players on budget, such as Evan Turner and CJ McCollum, and they can boast of having signed staples such as Shaquille O’Neal and most of all Dwyane Wade back in the day.

The most telling thing of Hampton’s upside in relation to his partnership with Li-Ning, though, is the fact that the company is already prepared to put on an effort and work with him during the next few months to build a signature shoe for the young player, which is slated to debut during his first pro season in NZ.

Looking back in time, not a lot of players can say they got a custom shoe made exclusively for them during their first year as professional players. The list goes as follows (NBA rookie-seasons considered): Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James, Jimmer Fredette, Shaquille O’Neal, Stephon Marbury, and Lonzo Ball.

That is to say, Hampton will be only the 12th player to date to have a signature shoe straight out of amateur/college basketball.

Of course, the fact that he will be donning Li-Ning shoes is on a different level than James, Jordan or Anthony wearing market-heavy Nikes or Jordans. Even no longer-heavyweights such as Reebok (a subsidiary of Adidas since 2005) and Fila could be considered to be on top of the field back in the 90s and early aughts when they built their signature shoes for the aforementioned players.

There is no doubt Li-Ning, as an already-established-but-still-up-and-coming company is banking on uncertainty and upside with Hampton’s signature. If everything turns out nicely and he fulfills his potential, the deal will probably look like a steal for the Chinese company (they’re getting RJ for five years).

Of course, Hampton will always have the chance to move on from Li-Ning and use them as a springboard to bigger things in the future. Keep in mind the term of their newly inked relation. In five years Hampton will only be 23 years old, he will be entering (if all goes according to plan) his fourth NBA season, and would probably be considered one of the best young players around the Association. Adidas, Nike, et al. will be eager to get such an asset.

No one truly knows what the future holds for Hampton, though, as the path he’s taking is a risky one that could or could not pay off. Even if all goes south, though, he’s already secured his paycheck both as a pro and as the newest face of a sports apparel brand and is on his way to becoming a first-rounder (if not a lottery or even Top-5 pick) in next year’s NBA draft.

While others are playing it safe and buying a set of checkers, going step by step, following the most common path to pro basketball, Hampton went all-in and bought himself the full chess-level pack of goods.

Maturity seems to be in place. Fear doesn’t feature in Hampton’s dictionary. If he can also translate his playing ability to the pros during the next few months, well, then we’ll probably be witnessing one of the earliest success stories of the past few years and hearing more and more buzz as we get closer to June’s draft.

There is still a long road to walk, but Hampton’s first baby-steps as a professional athlete are nothing short of huge. Let’s keep it rolling.