Top five prospect R.J. Hampton to skip college, turn pro in New Zealand

Kelly Kline/Under Armour
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R.J. Hampton, a top five prospect in the Class of 2019 and a player that Kansas, Memphis and Texas Tech had all hoped would be the late-May addition they needed to make them a favorite to win the 2020 national title, announced on Tuesday morning that he will not be attending college.

Hampton, instead, is heading to New Zealand, spending his one-and-done season playing as a professional in the land of Steven Adams. This won’t come as much of a surprise to people that have been paying attention — the rumors that Hampton was headed abroad had grown louder after he reclassified last month — but it is a decision that is unprecedented.

“My dream has never been to play college basketball,” Hampton said on ESPN’s ‘Get Up’ on Tuesday morning. “So I think this was the best route for me.”

Because based on everything that I am hearing, Hampton would be eligible to play college ball, making him the first elite prospect to skip college altogether when he actually had the option on playing in the NCAA.

Terrance Ferguson didn’t. When he made the decision in the summer of 2016 to head to Australia, he did so knowing that there was a real chance he would never be cleared to play in college. Ferguson attended Prime Prep, the high school that Deion Sanders created in Texas whose coursework was not accepted by the NCAA. That’s the same school that Emmanuel Mudiay attended, which was the driving force behind his decision to play professionally in China instead of trying to get cleared to enroll at SMU. Brandon Jennings, the first player that skipped college to head abroad, did so with questions about whether or not he would get a qualifying test score. If LaMelo Ball eventually ends up heading to Australia, he’ll do so because he forfeited his collegiate eligibility when his family made the decision to play professionally in Lithuania last year.

Hampton doesn’t have looming eligibility issues hanging over his head.

And that is what makes this unique.

If anyone can really be considered a trailblazer here, it’s Hampton, and frankly, it will be fascinating to see how this turns out.

It worked for the first three guys to make the leap. Jennings averaged better than 15 points for the first six seasons of his career, and while he was out of the NBA this past season, he’s already earned more than $40 million in NBA paychecks. That doesn’t include endorsements or money that he made overseas. I think he did OK.

Mudiay has not had the easiest transition to the professional level, but he did average 14.8 points and 3.9 assists in 59 games for the Knicks as a 22-year old this season. He’ll get another contract, and he’s already banked $14 million off his rookie deal. Ferguson? He started every game he played for the Thunder this season, including five games during the playoffs.

There’s more than one way to get to the NBA.

And five years ago, Hampton making this decision likely would have resulted in column after column being written bemoaning how problematic this would be for the college game, but that shouldn’t be the case anymore. There are kids currently in high school that will likely end up being able to go straight to the NBA, assuming that the 19-year old age limit gets eliminated in a couple of years like everyone in basketball expects it to.

Hell, Hampton could very well end up being the last high school kid that has to trek halfway across the world to be able to capitalize on his market value.

Put another way, this isn’t going to be the end of college basketball as we know it the same way that the sport — somehow, miraculously — survived Ferguson, and Mudiay, and Jennings opting for a gap year.

And if I’m being totally honest, I don’t even know if this decision is going to have all that much of an impact on the game this season.

Look, Hampton is a stud. I don’t know if anyone is going to unseat James Wiseman as the No. 1 pick in this draft class, but Hampton is certainly somewhere in that conversation. He’s also a guy that is picking between three college teams already in the preseason top ten. No one actually thought that Texas Tech was in the mix down the stretch, so we can take them out of this conversation.

Memphis already has the talent. Would Hampton be a talent upgrade at the point over Boogie Ellis and Tyler Harris? Sure, but the issue Memphis has right now isn’t talent. It’s experience. Hampton reclassified from the Class of 2020 meaning he should be heading into his senior season in high school. He would not be the answer to their experience problem.

Kansas was considered to be the favorite to land Hampton had he decided on the college route, but even that was a weird fit. Hampton wants the ball in his hands, but that would have required Bill Self to take the ball out of Devon Dotson’s hands — it might have even convinced Dotson to keep his name in the NBA draft. I don’t know if that would have been optimal for the Jayhawks. With Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett and potentially both Dotson and Quentin Grimes returning, the Jayhawk perimeter is already crowded. Hampton, would certainly be a talent upgrade, but considering that the issues the Jayhawks will face next season center around the fact that they lack A) a four-man to run high-low with Udoka Azubuike, and B) the kind of perimeter shooting needed to play small-ball full-time, this is another situation where Hampton is not necessarily the answer to what will ail Kansas.

Put another way, I currently have Kansas and Memphis at No. 7 and No. 9, respectively, in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. I don’t know if the addition of Hampton would automatically vault either of them into the top three.

So I guess my question is this: If a five-star prospect that wasn’t supposed to be a member of the Class of 2019 doesn’t enroll with the Class of 2019, and if the three top ten schools recruiting him wouldn’t be drastically better with him on board, will anyone actually notice that he never made it to campus?