R.J. Hampton Has Learned His Lessons Well

His father's hard-driving ways made for some tense moments at home, but now, as the 2020 NBA lottery prospect prepares to play in New Zealand, it’s clear R.J. and his dad have taught each other a lot.
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagJune 22, 2019

R.J. Hampton can't help but look around as he enters the Mamba Sports Academy. The training center is becoming a destination for NBA mainstays and hopefuls in Southern California.

One day, Hampton might spot a player he just watched in the NCAA tournament prepping for the NBA draft. On another, he catches Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Friends back home in Little Elm, Texas, plead for video as proof. Hampton declines. If he's going to soon be a peer, he needs to look the part while fast-forwarding from prodigy to professional.

Rod Hampton, R.J.'s father, would rather he walked in blindfolded. "That's the dog and pony show," he says. "I don't even want him around that shit. He ain't at that status yet. I keep telling him, 'I've been good for 51 years, and I've got another 51 in me. I've got to make sure you're good.'"

After stretching, the pair secure a half court to begin their familiar training session dance. First, R.J. needs to use the restroom. "Every time," Rod says. "Every time we 'bout to start, he needs to go. Don't he know that before?"

R.J., a 6'5" combo guard, hustles back. He starts by dribbling two basketballs at once. Layups off of Euros and hesis evolve into short set shots.

He removes his hoodie. The blood is flowing. The workout kicking into gear. So is Rod.

A ball kicks away. "Get your hands out your pocket," Rod instructs Christian Gregory, one of only a couple trusted few to permeate the Hamptons' inner circle and a current rebounder. "Motherfucker walking around like he's Jerry West, like he's part of the Buss family."

Mid-range shots follow. Rod instructs R.J. to drive hard and pull up at the foul line. "Mid-range get paid," Rod says. "You hit that motherfucker, you'll get paid for 40 seasons." R.J. reaches the line, steps back and shoots. "I said mid-range," Rod says. "Steph got y'all all messed up, man. Steph ain't real."

R.J. mutters something under his breath. He had hoped for a quieter session. "Make shots, I won't say shit," Rod counters. "You ain't gonna talk to Pat Riley like that. You ain't gonna be talking to NBA coaches like that."

Rod instructs R.J. to make a free throw. Swish. He takes a step away from the line, readying for the next drill. "One more," Rod says. He buries another. "One more." And another.

Rod is sweating more than R.J., whipping passes as his son arcs his way around the three-point line. Analysts are often overzealous in assessing comparables for players with R.J.'s tantalizing mix of age and potential. One labeled him "John Wall with a jumper". R.J. is now well beyond the three-point line, showcasing a feathery touch. Shot after shot splashes through the net. "Shooters shoot," Rod says. "There we go. Money ball."      

The destination is in sight, albeit with a 7,000-mile pit stop between here and the NBA. The Hamptons made waves last month when R.J. announced he would play professionally for the New Zealand Breakers in the Australia-based National Basketball League, bypassing the NCAA.

"You're never going to be bigger than [John] Calipari," Rod says. "You're never going to be bigger than Bill Self. You're never going to be bigger than Coach K. And that's fine. But, even when these kids go to college, give them their just due. And what is their just due? Is it playing time? Is it books, ball, tuition? That's fine. But when you're making so much money, you got to break bread. You got to break bread. Back in the early '80s, '70s, '60s, we didn't know any better. But these kids—you got a kid at his school, Jabez [Villalobos], who quit basketball. He's making money on what?"

"YouTube, Instagram," R.J. answers. "He has, like, a million followers. Quit basketball for it."

"So, if he goes to OU, just as a student, you going to say you got to cut the YouTube channel off?" Rod says. "They're not going to say that. It's the same thing."

More than a decade ago, Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker executive, brokered a deal for Brandon Jennings to go straight from Oak Hill Academy to playing professionally in Italy. The NBA had mandated that a player be at least 19 and a year removed from high school to apply for the draft. Vaccaro figured that a flood of elite prep players would follow Jennings' path, honing their skills full-time as a professional and skipping a college game Vaccaro felt enriched schools and coaches without compensating the players to their true value.

Few did. Most stars, like Zion Williamson, opted to bask in the NCAA spotlight. Darius Bazley, a forward drafted 23rd overall Thursday night, spent the past year training and interning at New Balance instead of in college, but he's still an outlier. "We're the only one that has a system and the kids aren't really taken care of," says Hampton's agent, Happy Walters, who also negotiated Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Terrance Ferguson's NBL deal before he was drafted in 2017. "So, this is one of the ways, I think, that hopefully things change."

For their part, the NBA and the players association are expected to lower the age of draft-eligible players to 18 in time for the 2022 draft.

Hampton, 18, faced no eligibility concerns. He earned a 3.8 GPA in high school. "Writing's easy," he says. His mother, Markita, earned a master's degree in leadership and professional development while raising two kids. She plotted her studying around basketball schedules and refused to allow R.J. to slack on his own schooling. He retained information easily enough to pass without much preparation, but just passing wasn't good enough for Markita. "You can't bring a C," she would tell him.   

But as his scoring capabilities drove his draft prospects up (ESPN currently has him projected to go sixth in 2020), the family made a professional and basketball decision.

"We're a corporation in the early stages," Rod says. "You got to see how the next 10 years going to look. You can set yourself up for a long time."

Vaccaro doesn't expect a deluge of players to copy Hampton's plans in the interim, but already LaMelo Ball announced that he is joining the Illawarra Hawks of the National Basketball League, and Kenyon Martin Jr. is seeking international professional opportunities instead of playing at Vanderbilt, partly as a result of being influenced by Hampton's decision.

"There are still individuals with no question marks around his name that just say, "What the hell am I doing?'" Vaccaro says. "He was almost like Ben Simmons. They forced [Simmons to go to college], and one of the great talents of that era knew it was a trick. I think [Hampton] is saying, 'What the hell am I going to go ahead with this trick for? I just want to go to the NBA next year.'"

The plan isn't merely to reach the NBA, however.

"I know when he goes over to New Zealand, he's going to have a target on his back," Rod says. "He is going to find a way."

R.J. Hampton, expected to be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA draft, was one of the country's most highly sought-after recruits before he decided to spend the next year playing in New Zealand.
R.J. Hampton, expected to be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA draft, was one of the country's most highly sought-after recruits before he decided to spend the next year playing in New Zealand.Elsa/Getty Images

He addresses R.J. "I'm telling you, you got to find a way. ... The stage is set for him. ... I'm not going to say he got to find a way to get drafted. You're going to get drafted. If he doesn't, there's something catastrophic's got to happen.

"My prayer and my thing for him, you have to find a way to be the No. 1 pick. And if I put that challenge in front of him, he's going to figure out a way."

Rod would know best. He's been putting challenges in front of his son for some time in preparation for this one.

Workouts continue below as R.J. makes his way to the second floor of the academy. He's wearing a hoodie featuring an image of Nipsey Hussle, the hip-hop artist and community activist who was murdered in March. He first heard Nipsey several years ago on "Killer," a track featuring Drake. "I keep my money coming in and never going out … Then I hit the league straight out the streets with no talent scout," Nipsey raps on the song.

For R.J., Hussle's artistry showed in prioritizing authenticity over popular trends. "He didn't care about the cars and the money," R.J. says. "He didn't rap about what was in right now. If you didn't like what he rapped about, he didn't care. … I know a lot of people didn't even like my decision, but as long as I'm happy with it, people that aren't happy, nothing I can do with it."

He adds: "I think I'm building a new pathway for guys that are able to go to college to not go to college and play professional basketball. There's people that done it that had to do it because they didn't have the grades, but I think I'm taking a pathway in saying, 'Even if you're a great student but your main goal is to get to the NBA, you can do this.'"

The choice was left to R.J., a right to autonomy that Rod would have preferred during his own college playing career. His reality played out far differently than the idyllic NCAA commercial. He arrived at SMU as a hometown hero, a big guard during an era of hand checks and backdowns. He found hurdles everywhere he turned. He redshirted a season. Proposition 48 forced him out of another one. Dave Bliss, the coach who recruited him, left and was replaced by one who didn't suit Rod's style. They butted heads. Meanwhile, NCAA investigators hovered around SMU's campus. The football program had been hit with massive violations, including the use of a slush fund to pay players. Rod's cars served as the subject of two inquiries.

"I saw the business of college basketball," Rod says. "It's about the coach. It's about the shoe company. It's about the media. At that time, it really wasn't about the players. There was no social media and things like that. It was either do it this way or transfer."

He stayed, graduated and played basketball overseas for a few years. He started a basketball consulting company and was still clocking in, playing in pro-am leagues, when R.J. was born.

Rod discovered his son was a gym rat. They started training sessions when R.J. entered second grade. He kept getting better and better. Coaches and other players marveled at R.J.'s skill and abilities. Rod did not trust his eyes. Yes, his son could play, but he could still push him to be better. It was R.J. who told him that he wanted to be an NBA player. Rod promised to get him there if he put in the work.

So he pressed, poked and prodded.

"Our relationship hasn't always been peaches and cream," Rod concedes. "[When] we get in the car after the game, early on, I kept as coach. I didn't turn into Dad." Markita insisted he had to be R.J.'s dad away from the court. I ain't got to be a dad, Rod thought. He wants to be a pro, I got to make him a pro. "In doing that," he admits, "I was losing my son."

The breaking point came when Rod was coaching R.J. in an AAU game during his freshman season. Up two with a minute left, R.J. went up for a dunk and missed.

Rod wasn't happy.

"I saw him believing he was really good—what we call smelling yourself—and he totally tuned me out," Rod says. "He's going down the court, I'm yelling at him. Totally tuning me out. I called timeout. I said, 'Who the fuck do you think you are? You think you fucking arrived?' Pow."

Rod smacked R.J. in the back of the head.

"He didn't like that," Rod remembers. "Fifteen D-I coaches were right there. After the game, his mom got my ass."

R.J. told Markita that he hated his father.

Markita, who describes herself as a mom and mediator, told R.J. to go talk to Rod. And she told Rod to go talk with R.J.

"There's so many young men out here that don't have a dad," Markita says. "Especially to have a dad who has been here and with you guys since you came out the womb. That man has been a father to his kids. But ... with Rod, you can want something so bad for somebody that it gets ugly and nasty. You can't want anything for someone more than they want for themselves. You have to allow R.J. to grow."

Rod confided in her that he had to be hard on him, because future coaches would be even tougher. R.J. would tell her that his father was overbearing. She was, and is, the voice of reason for both.

"When that happened, that was the evolving point for me," Rod says. "I totally disrespected him. It was warranted, but that put the light in my head. If I don't pump my brakes, I'm going to lose him."

R.J. Hampton in his preteen years with his mother, Markita, his little brother, Ryan, and his father, Rod.
R.J. Hampton in his preteen years with his mother, Markita, his little brother, Ryan, and his father, Rod.Photo courtesy of Markita Hampton

Rod has loosened the reins…somewhat. He argued against R.J. getting any tattoos, lest it hurt his ability to sell shoes, but he agreed to allow it if he hit all his goals and the tattoo could be covered by clothing. R.J. wants a car. That debate is continuing.

"I'm still hands-on … but he's a man now. He's able to feed himself and clothe himself. But what I see now, he does lean on me more [as his father]. I'm getting back the, not years, but the months that I missed. I want to be his coach, his mentor, but I really want to be his dad at the end of the day. That's it."

About a year ago, Joey Wright called Rod Hampton. Wright coached Terrance Ferguson for the NBL's Adelaide 36ers and played against Hampton collegiately while at Texas. "Is [R.J.] your son?" he asked. "Don't send him to college. He got it. Send him here. The living conditions are great. You're going to get your money."

Rod began researching the teams and players who arrived in the NBA from the NBL, a list that includes alumni like Joe Ingles and James Ennis.

"Do you want to go to college?" he asked R.J. He presented the NBL as an option to consider. R.J. thought his dad was kidding. I'm not really worried about what he's saying, he thought. Let me just get back to my recruiting process. After reclassifying, he narrowed his college destination to Kansas, Memphis or Texas Tech.

A month passed. The pair stayed up to watch NBL games online. "You're seeing cheerleaders and smoke bombs go off," Rod says. "All the extras. It's a mini NBA."

The NCAA tournament came and went. Markita recalled being thrilled when R.J. received his first recruitment letter, but she soured on the process as it continued. "Does it work sometimes for the athlete?" she asks. "It does, but there are holes in it that I didn't really like, that I saw through and I just didn't feel was fair and right.

"There are genuine people, but I think that in the recruiting process, there's a lot of games. Coaches not being completely honest. You see that they have to make promises to this person and that person and where will you really shake out in the end? It's this unknown thing, and if you don't get along with the coach, if coaches recruit over you and not tell you, and then you get there..."

I'm kind of liking this for real, R.J. thought in May. "I really wanted to do it," he says. 

They settled on the New Zealand team after finding comfort in former Florida player Matt Walsh serving as part of the ownership group. "Plus, he's got a chance to be the starting point guard," Rod adds. "Some other teams told us, 'He can come here, your money's going to be fine, the living conditions going to be fine, but he's only going to play six minutes.' That ain't what we're coming over here for."

The decision drew criticism from those who felt the family led colleges on while negotiating a contract to go overseas.

Rod rebuffs the assumption.

"I would never let him sign a contract with that league unless we told Kansas that," he says. "So, he signed a letter of intent with the league to intend on entering into a contractual agreement. Why? Because he has to get insurance. Me being his father, he's 18. If I let you sign, you're a done deal. So I told him, 'Sign this letter of intent, and we are going to wait it out.' Because what if my 18-year-old comes to me, 'Dad, I'm scared; I want to go to college'? Kansas, at the end of the day, if the bottom would've fell out, no one would've even known about this. He would've went to Kansas."

R.J. announced his decision in late May on ESPN.

"Basketball is a sport where I feel like at any age, if you have the skill level and the talent and the work ethic, you can be the best at any level," R.J. says. "Football, you legit have to be physically ready to go to the NFL or you will get killed. But basketball's more a finesse game, so if you have the mindset and the skill and the talent and the work ethic, you could be 16 years old. Pro players—look at Luka Doncic, playing in the best Euro league in the world at 16 years old. And then he was MVP at 18."

B/R Hoops @brhoops

RJ had to play it cool for over a month that he signed his New Zealand contract 😌 @RjHampton14 https://t.co/AP23GscNfC

The family plans to depart for New Zealand in the fall. "I think he'll fit in great, but it will definitely be a culture shock when he first gets here," says Dillon Boucher, New Zealand's general manager. "We are an English-speaking country. He doesn't have to worry about that. He's going to have great teammates that are going to support him and help him grow, but any time you've come from playing high school basketball into a full professional environment, it's always going to be a culture shock. It's great that his family's going to be out here with him to be able to help him transition successfully into a full pro."

The Breakers went 12-16 last season under coach Kevin Braswell, who played point guard for Georgetown from 1998-2002 before spending the next 14 years playing for a variety of teams, mostly overseas.

"I'm there to be as successful as possible and help my team win," R.J. says. "I feel like if I play good, the team's going to play good. So then we're going to win. It's not an easy league, [but] I want to win a championship there. That's the main goal."

Of greatest concern to R.J. is the time difference and being able to keep up with his friends back home in Little Elm. "When I'm asleep, they're up," he says. Still, NBA scouts are expected to follow him to New Zealand.

He insists he is unbothered by the potential publicity missed outside of the NCAA's bubble.

"If we're being real, no college kid got publicity this year, except for Zion," R.J. says. "It was all Zion. All the time, Zion. It was basically Zion, ESPN. He could have went to China and it still would have been Zion, ESPN. I just thought when you go to college, they're going to pick one guy to be that Zion of the class. Everybody else is going to kind of fall under."

As another training session between father and son ends, a lanky 11-year-old lofts shots by himself on the other end of the court.

R.J. describes his younger brother, Ryan, as better than him at that age. "Only because he's been around R.J. so much," Rod says.

Ryan has asked to be trained by his father, like his older brother. Rod has resisted. He may start with him in middle school.

"I don't think I have to do as much, and he wants me to yell and scream at him," Rod says. "He wants that, my little one, but I'm not going to do it. I've learned."

From the looks of it, so has R.J.


Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wireavailable right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

B/R draft expert Jonathan Wasserman joins Howard Beck to talk about the NBA draft, from the best values to to the biggest mysteries to the saga of Bol Bol. All on The Full 48.


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