Preseason games on Tuesday nights aren’t supposed to be highly anticipated.
The overall play is sloppy, the stars are on limited minutes, and it’s a lot of fringe players looking to show they belong in the league.
This preseason exhibition in Memphis had a different vibe though. Many NBA scouts and executives were already in town for the University of Memphis Pro Day, but they were also there to get a look at New Zealand Breakers point guard RJ Hampton.
Once classified in the Class of 2020, Hampton re-classified to graduate high school a year early. His recruiting was a huge storyline in Memphis, as the Tigers were one of his final teams. Instead of going to college, Hampton shocked the basketball world when he announced he was going to play a year with the New Zealand Breakers in the NBL.
The decision to go overseas instead of college is often a debate. On one hand, the dominant argument is players should go secure the bag — and I agree, these players are too good to play for free. On the other hand though, the exposure isn’t enough, and their draft stock dwindles — ultimately costing them a few extra million dollars.
When asking Ja Morant about Hampton’s (and LaMelo Ball’s) decision and if it’ll create a wave of high school players doing the same, he said:
Though these NBA executives were here to see RJ Hampton, Ja Morant outshined the lottery prospect while also flashing his star potential.
He only scored 4 points, but he sliced the Breakers’ defense and had them in the palm of his hands. He was bobbin’ and weaving through traffic and finding open teammates both on the perimeter and in the paint. His control is light years ahead for his age, as he knows when to put on the gas or the brakes, and he keeps his turnovers to a minimum. Morant also makes the dazzling, jaw-dropping dime just as simple as he makes the simple pass, as he left the crowd ooo’ing and ahh’ing most of the night.
On the other side, RJ Hampton struggled to find a true rhythm. He finished with 2 points on 1-8 shooting, 6 rebounds, and an assist. He couldn’t really maneuver his way into good playmaking opportunities — both for himself and others — in a half-court setting. He also couldn’t stay in front of Morant defensively.
Hampton probably would’ve benefited from a year of college, where he would’ve gotten more exposure and opportunities for improvement. However, maybe a year of playing professional could accelerate the “growing up” process for him — he’s technically a 18 year-old high school senior playing international basketball.
Tonight’s preseason game gave us a quasi-glimpse at the future. For one, it was a first look at one of the top prospects in next year’s draft — one who could end up a Grizzly next year, if they retain the pick.
It was also a glimpse of how great Ja Morant can be. The way he controls the game, while still adding some showmanship and pizzazz to his moves, is mesmerizing — truly superstar-esque. He might already be a top-10 passer and could become a top-5 one as quickly as this year. He didn’t show it in this game, but he’s also a highlight-reel finisher with potential to become a devastating 3-level scorer.
Yes, it’s just preseason, and the Memphis Grizzlies haven’t played a real NBA team yet, but Ja Morant has shown that he has the tools and skill to be a special NBA point guard.