NBA: Former NZ Breakers guard RJ Hampton poised for dream draft call-up

Former NZ Breakers guard RJ Hampton has his bags packed for Thursday's NBA Draft - but has no idea where he's headed in the annual scramble for basketball talent.

The young American is on the verge of realising a dream that saw him turn down a US college scholarship to play professionally for the Auckland-based franchise in the Australian NBL last summer, showcasing his skills against grown men with a view to bigger and better things.

While his oncourt presence with the Breakers was relatively short-lived - he lasted 15 games, averaging 8.8 points before injury intervened - Hampton, 19, proved a fan favourite and has helped establish the Aussie competition as a destination for other future NBA prospects.

"I get questions about playing for the Breakers, playing in the Australian NBL every single day," he says. "I'm really just getting ready for the draft and using my experiences from New Zealand to help me with this process.

"If you have the mental toughness and want to be one of the best players in the NBA, there's no better route than to go play against professionals and learn from their experiences. I had guys on my team that were seasoned pros that I still take notes from every single day.

"At college, I feel you're babied. If you go to the NBL or any professional league, at 17-18 years old, you have to grow up very quick and that helps you prepare for your ultimate goal in the NBA."

COVID-19 has severely affected the traditional draft process, where college and overseas players audition for the 30 franchises through national tournaments, camps and individual workouts.

Hampton's decision to forgo college proved fortunate, with the 'March Madness' national tournament's cancellation robbing many of his peers a chance to impress. 

"March Madness was always a dream of mine," he admits. "Seeing that it didn't happen - not that I was happy about that, but it took some of the emotion away from not playing in it away.

"I've been training every day, getting ready for the big day, and making sure I'm in shape and my game is tight, so when I have to play my first NBA game, I'm ready." 

Hampton is projected to go somewhere in the top 20 picks, with former Illawarra Hawks guard LaMelo Ball - another to ply his trade downunder - a possible No.1 candidate.

The ESPN network has a camera crew already set up at Hampton's Dallas home, ready to capture the moment his dream comes true. The draft ceremony usually takes place at one venue, but coronavirus has seen that format scrapped this year, with players scattered across the United States.

Hampton will have 30 different caps on hand for the announcement - one (or perhaps more, he's traded) will represent his draft-day destination.

Right now, he has little idea where he'll end up.

"If you had asked me 3-4 days ago, I might have been able to tell you," says Hampton. "But teams like to keep it quiet closer to draft day... if I had an answer, I would tell you.

"I'm stoked to get drafted at all. Do I think I'll go below 20... I don't think so.

"I'll be happy wherever I go and whichever team gets me will be very lucky."