By Aaron Callaghan
Just 10 years ago the Nation Basketball League was a joke.
The Sydney Spirit attracted a crowd of 900 but wouldn't be shocked if it was 500 patrons. Players weren't sure if their weekly pay would come through, let alone the reality of teams dodging superannuation payments, and the NBL having to practically beg Fox Sports to broadcast the games.
Fast forward to 2019 and two blue chip United States high school stars are headed to the Illawarra Hawks and the New Zealand Breakers in LaMelo Ball and Roderick ‘RJ’ Hampton. Both are exciting guard prospects in the 2020 NBA draft who have chosen to eschew normal development routes of Europe, China and most pertinent the NCAA system.
For the NBL, which is very rapidly growing in terms of credibility, profitability and on court product, the arrival of Ball and Hampton give the league unbridled exposure and move the NBL's Next Stars program from a thought in the back of people's minds, a last resort for the academically ineligible like Brian Bowen and Terrance Ferguson - to a first choice option in turning pro, earning some money, maturing with seasoned adult pros and learning the game of basketball.
The Kids - LaMelo and RJ
The NBL is a grown man’s league, rough and tumble yet still highly skilled. That begs the question - How will Hampton and Ball adjust to the style of play in the NBL? My guess is they’ll both be tested physically and fouled hard - “Earn em young fella”.
It is time to look at what Hampton and LaMelo will bring to NBL courts. I watched every piece of film I could on Hampton and LaMelo, which isn’t too difficult in 2019. I have played basketball for many years however if you want expert analysis from people smarter than me please head here.
RJ Hampton first committed to the Next Stars program and in effect the New Zealand Breakers and immediately implored LaMelo Ball to join him down under.
Hampton is a 6’5” point guard out of Little Elm high school in Texas. Hampton is a five star prospect in the 2020 NBA draft and received several offers from major colleges for the 2019/20 season. Hampton has a very fluid shooting motion, no hitches, releases in front of his face which isn’t exactly ideal however it shouldn’t worry him at the next level. Shooting as a skill is universally desired across all leagues and will take a player a long way. Hampton has a great handle and is an eyes up player who looks to get into the paint to score or create for others off the dribble. He looks like a pure point guard in 2019’s version of basketball.
The New Zealand Breakers will benefit from some elite ball handling and shot creation from someone other than Corey Webster and Shea Ili (Whom as I was writing this has signed with Melbourne United).
If you roughly follow basketball and don’t know who LaMelo Ball is and the Ball family then I can’t help you - go google LaVar Ball - he is probably the most outspoken father in world sports taking the mantle from shit sports dad #1 - the allegedly abusive and always outspoken Damir Dokic.
LaMelo Ball will arrive in Wollongong for the upcoming NBL season bringing a certain cachet to a small, struggling market starved of media attention by everyone not named the Illawarra Mercury. The Big Baller brand effect will be felt in the Illawarra region and widespread throughout Australia. LaMelo will be a draw at every NBL city this season, the sort of star power the league needs - a sort of Bogut effect on steroids.
LaMelo according to many draft experts is a greater prospect than his oldest brother Lonzo Ball, who was drafted number two overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. LaMelo has the ability to shoot from deep range, out past the NBA line, and perhaps most importantly, pulling up off the dribble. There are some question marks around LaMelo's game including his ability to play defence of course being very light in the shorts, and as there is still a place for low post play in the NBL, we may see teams switch to get Ball down on the block and bully him into the basket. Having said that Illawarra have a great front line to help in the paint. Ball projects as a combo guard who, barring a disastrous NBL campaign is lottery bound in 2020.
The more light shone on to the NBL, the better for basketball in Australia. 2015 was the year everything changed for the NBL, players, fans and investors - Larry Kestelman for all intents and purposes bought the National Basketball League on the back of a $7million investment, while also owning a large stake in Melbourne United and has been involved in the league through sponsorship for the best part of the last decade. Larry didn’t exactly save the NBL, there were a few profitable teams, but Kestelman may have steered the league 20 steps forward in the right direction. The NBL is at all time high across all metrics, riding the wave of the growth of basketball, Australian NBA talent and the access to watch the sport on free to air and on-demand apps. That is not to take anything away from Kestelman and his right hand man Jeremy Loeliger, who have taken the league into a new era of professionalism not only at the league office but in ensuring each club is financially sound.
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