In recent weeks, rumors have circulated about Celtics general manager Danny Ainge eyeing RJ Hampton with the 14th pick in the 2020 draft. Chris Grenham of Forbes first reported on the infatuation, as well as the patterns evident between Ainge and highly-regarded high school prospects who underwhelmed in their first steps away from home.
Hampton is a unique prospect with a winding journey to the draft, a clear piece of his game he needs to work on to be great, and a camp of agents around him working exhaustingly to amplify his name and increase his draft stock. He’s all over mock drafts and boards, mentioned as high as #7 to the Detroit Pistons and as low as the early 20's. Lying in the middle of that path: the Celtics at 14.
To understand why Hampton’s stock is so volatile--as well as what he projects to be at the next level--requires a deep dive into the path he’s traveled, the talent he’s shown, and the fit the Celtics are starving for in an heir apparent to Kemba Walker.
The Path Less Traveled
Following in the footsteps of top high school guards Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay, Hampton spurned the collegiate model for professional experience overseas. Originally due to graduate from high school this past spring, Hampton re-classed and left for New Zealand, joining the Breakers of the NBL. He was supposed to be a senior in high school taking calculus, and instead he moved halfway across the world to learn on the fly.
His season with the Breakers was certainly eye-opening. Three games into the season, Glen Rice Jr., the team’s top scorer, had his contract terminated for violating a bail order. The Breakers, competing for a playoff berth, had veteran scorers on the wings and at the point. Former NBA swingman Scotty Hopson anchored the scoring load. Corey Webster, who played years in the G-League with the New Orleans Pelicans, was their shooting-minded point guard, a great compliment to Hopson. Veterans Sek Henry and Thomas Abercrombie commanded supporting roles to fill out the backcourt rotation.
The first error for Hampton was joining a club that didn’t have room to feature him in the role he was best-served for. A point guard at heart who spent almost every possession in high school and AAU hoops with the ball in his hands was suddenly jettisoned to the wing, moved from creation duty and turned into a floor spacer.
We’ve spent a ton of energy this draft cycle looking for “the next Kentucky hidden gem.” Guys like Devin Booker, Jamal Murray, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro all showed more about their games in the NBA than in college because they were asked to sacrifice their role for the benefit of their college team. Now, we’re accustomed to looking for guys who can do more than they’ve shown, and Kentucky is always the first place our eyes gravitate tp because we understand the breadth of talent in their program.
The same can be said of Hampton with the Breakers. He’s an 18-year-old playing in a pro league with former NBA guys. He’s not afforded the keys to a franchise the way LaMelo Ball was in Australia’s NBL. His job was to adapt, not be catered to. If we’re looking for the guy ready to take the biggest leap forward in the NBA, Hampton might be the right guy.
The Scouting Breakdown
Because the context is so vital to understanding why Hampton struggled, statistics and efficiency numbers don’t tell the whole story of what he’s capable of. Hampton showed flashes of brilliance with the ball in his hands in a few areas with the Breakers, mainly in transition. He excelled in the open floor, showing off his creativity, his athleticism and the sharp attacking cuts he can make.
Those skills translate in the spread pick-and-roll, the NBA’s common approach to screening where the three offensive players not involved in the action are standing outside the 3-point line. In those few moments Hampton was highlighted there, he showed dominant levels of athleticism.
At 6’5” with a 6’7” wingspan, Hampton really is a big guard. He looked comfortable posting mismatches on smaller guards, evidenced by his constant use of spin dribbles to back down his man.
The size disparity was evident when he stepped on the floor for a preseason game last October against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Matched up with Chris Paul, Hampton was being groomed as the team’s point guard at that point, with the Breakers’ roster not filled with the talent they’d begin the NBL season with.
Hampton didn’t put on a stellar performance. Paul outdueled him in ball screens, his teammates missed shots, and he failed to convert on key looks at the rim. But he clearly looked like he belonged on the floor that night, perhaps the only guy on his team who had the athletic qualifications to be an NBA guy.
In that exhibition against the Thunder, Hampton actually quelled most of my fears about his playmaking and passing at the point. It’s one of the biggest places he needs to improve, but when thinking about his capability to get there, I keep going back to this game. He played with solid natural pace in ball screens, made accurate and timely reads that could have ended in more assists and deftly commanded switches to his advantage.
Hampton’s swing skill is going to be his shooting. He’s been working with former NBA champion Mike Miller to develop his jumper, change his mechanics, and assimilate more to an NBA role where he knows he won’t have the ball in his hands full-time. Those improvements should see a rise from his 29 percent 3-point shooting a year ago, and the mechanical tweaks have been lauded by many scouts. They’re the impetus for his potential climb up draft boards.
Balance needs to be found, though. Hampton shouldn’t be asked, no matter where he goes, to play off-ball as much as he did with the Breakers. He’ll be more prepared for the moments when that happens, but his tweaks to his jumper aren’t about proving he’s great in that role. They’re a compliment to his skills with the ball in his hands, the way he’s meant to be utilized.
The Fit in Boston
Any move the Celtics make through the draft has to be made with two players in mind: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The players they draft have to be able to coexist with them, and that means having the ability to play off-ball and space the floor around them. Tatum is turning into an isolation maestro, so putting out non-shooters next to him will shrink his playground.
Hampton’s fit in Boston will indeed be dependent on the development of that aspect of his game. It’s a risk, but a risk the Celtics can take. With three first-round picks, a nearly-full roster and no major holes to address, they can swing on best player available while maintaining assets for addressing the minor areas worth improving.
It’s the payoff with Hampton that’s so attractive. If he becomes a league-average 3-point threat in the same way Marcus Smart has, the Celtics become a super long, dynamic group that can switch everything on defense without a short player or weak link. Hampton, Brown, and Tatum are three awesome on-ball defenders. They become a terror defensively and, once Kemba is gone, project as a team filled with long, rangy athletes.
As far as the offense goes, that void left by Kemba will need to be filled by someone proficient in ball screens. That likely isn’t Smart or Brown, and Tatum can’t be the only one out there with that skill. He’ll look a hell of a lot different than Walker, but the fit long-term in Boston isn’t hard to imagine.
Everything with Hampton comes back to his shooting. How much teams buy his improvements will dictate how high in the draft he goes and what kind of attention he commands. If we’re looking for the next guy primed to outperform the elements of his game he showed prior to the NBA, and want to get in on the ground floor of that development, Hampton provides the highest ceiling for return on that investment.