NBL commissioner says landing R.J. Hampton is no sign of looming threat to NBA or college basketball
Through its “Next Stars” program, which now has a 5-star face in former KU target R.J. Hampton, Australia’s National Basketball League is making its move toward international relevance.
But the goal of the league is not to replace the NBA, rather to help it.
So said NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger during a Tuesday night phone interview with the Journal-World during which he examined the impact of Hampton’s decision to skip college and join the NBL’s New Zealand Breakers for the 2019-20 season.
“We don’t need to be all things to all people,” Loeliger told the Journal-World. “We’re a very small league in a very small country. We’re not a threat to the college system. We’re not a threat to the NBA if it abolishes the one-and-done role. We feel can play an important role for a category of athlete who would be suited for this kind of opportunity. It’s not going to be for everyone, but for those guys to whom it does appeal, we think we can add a lot of value.”
Initially created with the idea of attracting players who “fell through the cracks,” Loeliger said the Next Stars program quickly shifted its approach to trying to attract highly rated draft prospects.
The program began last season with former Louisville commitment Brian Bowen II and moves forward with Hampton as its second member.
Bowen, who is eligible for the 2019 NBA Draft, averaged 6.3 points and 3.2 rebounds per game in 30 games with the Sydney Kings last season.
According to ESPN broadcaster Fran Fraschilla, who has long been plugged in to basketball’s international scene, similar numbers should be expected for Hampton with the New Zealand Breakers during the 2019-20 season.
“These kids will not dominate that league,” Fraschilla said of Hampton and whoever might follow in his footsteps. “They’re going to knock him around all over the place. His athleticism will get him by, but there’s a chance he could go the whole year and not be a starter.”
Regardless of how Hampton performs, the goal of the NBL’s Next Stars program, according to Loeliger, is to get him — and others like him — to the NBA as soon as possible.
“That’s absolutely an important part of this,” Loeliger said. “We want these kids to come through the NBL on their way to the NBA. We want them to go within a year into the draft and go as highly as possible because what it does is create a fantastic model of sustainability for the NBL. It increases our relevance to audiences outside of Australia and, more importantly, it gives a lot of other guys in our league more exposure, as well.”
While Hampton said in his announcement that he hoped to be a trendsetter for this type of path for future 5-star prospects, the NBL has rules in place that could prevent Hampton’s decision from leading to full-blown trend status.
With just nine franchises in the league to date, the NBL can only have nine Next Stars players — one per team — in the league during a given season.
“We need to walk before we run,” said Loeliger, noting that the goal is to have four or five players like Hampton during the 2019-20 season while adding that one of the big reasons for the cap on Next Stars players is because they are almost entirely funded by the NBL and their roster spots exist outside of the league’s salary cap structure.
To that end, Fraschilla believes Hampton will remain more of the exception to the rule rather than the norm.
“I don’t think it’s going to open floodgates for the top high school stars (to go to Australia),” Fraschilla said. “But he’s definitely another pioneer on this path.”
Although the NBL’s rules and the allure of basketball in the United States figure to keep things in check, the Next Stars program, along with Hampton’s decision, grabbed the attention of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who on Tuesday morning appeared on ESPN’s “Get Up!” shortly after Hampton made his announcement to talk about the news.
“I am a little jealous,” Silver admitted. “In our G-League, we’re trying to create our own professional track. He decided he was better off in Australia than our G-League. I think I’m going to talk to the commissioner of our G-League to see what we can do differently. For an American player who decides college isn’t for me and wants to spend full time devoted to the game of basketball, there should be an alternative in the (United States) to do that.”
And if that becomes the case, whether that’s through changes to the G League structure or the expected elimination of the NBA’s one-and-done rule, Loeliger will be just fine with it as long as the current contributions of players like Hampton today have long-lasting affects in the NBL for years to come.
In that way, Loeliger sees the NBL as operating in harmony with the NBA toward greater globalization of the game of basketball.
“As long as we’re seen as a destination for players on their way to the NBA, then we’re going to continue to attract really good talent — Australians, veteran NBA players, guys from all around the world who perhaps aren’t on the college radar and hopefully a lot more Next Stars as well,” Loeliger said.
As for the criticism and concerns of Hampton’s move putting him out of the limelight and off the American radar, Loeliger said concerns about exposure while playing overseas were no longer valid, thanks largely to the advances in technology.
Loeliger said the NBL uses the same programs to edit team and player highlights and makes sure the clips are sent to NBA scouts and major U.S. media outlets on a regular basis.
Beyond that, all NBL games are streamed online in the United States via Flo Hoops, and Loeliger boasted that Australia, with its population of 27 million people, currently has the second most subscribers in the world — behind only the United States — to the NBA’s League Pass. In addition, Australia’s men’s and women’s national teams are consistently among the top-ranked programs in the world, and, with 13 Australians now playing in the NBA, basketball’s popularity down under is greater than ever.
“We want to help grow the game,” Loeliger said. “And we appreciate the NBA’s help to date in helping us do that in Australia.”
Three years ago, when Dallas prospect and future first-round NBA draft pick Terrance Ferguson was a trailblazer in the NBL, scouts from all 30 NBA teams made their way over to Australia multiple times during the 2016-17 season to watch Ferguson, and others, while making their draft plans.
Since then, the exposure and consistency of travel between the two continents has only increased.
“Exposure and transparency isn’t an issue anymore,” Loeliger said. “It’s an issue that can be solved very readily by technology and a bit of resourcing. And as more of these Next Stars come to Australia the problem’s going to become even less significant.”