NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger Talks Future Stars Of The League

Five-star recruit R.J. Hampton’s surprise announcement he is passing on the NCAA to join Australia’s NBL sent shockwaves through what can quite literally be described as the basketball world. 

Inevitable conversations about the impact on the NCAA’s oft-debated approach of amateurism ensued. However, Hampton spurning collegiate blue bloods Duke and Kansas, as well as burgeoning powerhouse Texas Tech, for a contract with the New Zealand Breakers also has a profound effect on the NBL. 

Once a player of RJ Hampton’s ability and credibility began those conversations, it became very clear that Australia and the NBL are recognized—not just in the US, but around the world—as one of the best leagues.

- NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger in a conversation with FloHoops.

Loeliger came on with the NBL in 2016, playing a key role in the league’s overhaul after Larry Kestelman became owner in 2015. And an overhaul, it needed. 

"The great thing about the league was that it was so broken that we could put it back together any way we wanted to without too much resistance or opposition," Loeliger told the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2017. 

One of the concepts the NBL introduced under its new leadership was the Next Stars program, under which Hampton joins the league for 2019-20. Next Stars debuted last season, aiming to give future NBA prospects a professional option to prepare for basketball’s highest level.

The concept took shape after another five-star prospect, Terrance Ferguson, spent a season with the Adelaide 36ers. Ferguson transitioned from his season in the NBL into the No. 21 overall pick of the 2017 NBA draft. 

Ferguson’s development speaks to one of the facets Loeliger touted for Next Stars, saying the NBL is “one of the best environments for young players to develop both their games and their bodies to get them ready for the NBA.”

That’s a sentiment reflected in Ferguson’s assessment to reporters during 2017 workouts, when he described the NBL as “a grown-man league,” and “very physical.”  

Both the physicality and age/experience angles do present prospective difficulties for fresh-from-high school players. In the pre-age-limit era of the NBA stars, high school draftees like Jermaine O’Neal and Rashard Lewis initially struggled to make impacts, only developing into stars after a few years in the league. 

The challenges in the NBL are no different, where players come with much more experience and the added benefit of physical maturation. This past season for the Sydney Kings, Brian Bowen averaged 6.3 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, logging around 15 minutes a night. 

Ferguson averaged similar minutes while posting 4.6 points and 1.1 rebounds per game. But in Ferguson’s Australian journey lies, according to Loeliger, a solid example of Next Stars’ benefits to NBA aspirants. 

“Terrance averaged about [15 minutes a game], but starting out, he played even fewer minutes. He was coming off the bench for five, seven minutes a game. By the end of the season, he was starting,” Loeliger said. “That is a good case study in itself, that he made good progress in the course of a season.

“What you’re doing is preparing those bodies to play against bigger, more physical athletes,” he continued. “It’s not just about the minutes they get on court. The minutes they spend off-court, in the weight room with good strength and conditioning coaches are just as important.”

And in the same way that some straight-to-the-pros NBA prospects a generation ago needed time to adapt, it also had instant impact rookies. Logic dictates the same should be true for the NBL, with Hampton a prime contender to do just that. 

His prospect credentials go beyond the offers he received from collegiate powers, or the professional leagues that sought his presence. The latest ESPN.com NBA Draft projections have him tabbed as the No. 6 pick of the 2020 class.  

Hampton’s signing continues a wave of positive momentum for the NBL’s profile stateside. Teams from the league embarked on exhibition tours against NBA competition to tip off the 2018-19 campaign. NBL and NBA teams will face again in 2019, with one noteworthy angle: Hampton and the New Zealand Breakers face Ferguson and the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of the tour.

Meanwhile, in the days following Hampton’s announcement, native Australian Andrew Bogut played a pivotal role in the Golden State Warriors’ NBA Finals Game 2 win over the Toronto Raptors. 

Before rejoining his onetime NBA team late this season, Bogut averaged 11.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game for the NBL’s Sydney Kings. And it wasn’t just Bogut, a former No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick and contributor to the first of Golden State’s championships since 2015, making the transition from the NBL to NBA. 

Australian product Mitch Creek played for both the Brooklyn Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves during the 2018-19 season. The campaign was former Brisbane Bullets star Torrey Craig’s second in the NBA, and he shined for the breakout Denver Nuggets. 

The NBL presented Craig, from low-major NCAA Division I program USC Upstate, a chance to cultivate his game and continue pursuing the NBA dream after a successful few years in the New Zealand Basketball League. 

“He’s an NBL guy, and we regard him as part of the family,” Loeliger said of Craig, who started 37 games and was a 20-minute-a-night spark plug for the Nuggets. “We take pride that he was able to come here out of college, develop his game, and he’s become a very significant NBA player.”

To glean league-wide benefit the NBL can take from the Next Stars program is that the added exposure of signing elite American prospects like Hampton can translate into more opportunities for other NBL stars like Craig.  

“Guys like Mitch Creek and Torrey Craig got their first call-ups to [NBA] Summer League directly as a result of those scouts being in town to see [Ferguson],” Loeliger said. 

Indeed, the revamping of the NBL is hardly just about the Next Stars program, of which a maximum of nine players per season can participate. Homegrown talent like Creek have an important part. And the league isn’t just a pipeline to the U.S. for prospects like Hampton who want a professional option in lieu of the NCAA. 

It’s also a viable pathway for NBA-caliber talent who put work in for the NBL, or in other leagues around the globe. Examples include Casper Ware and Bryce Cotton. 

“There’s room for [Ware] on about 10 different NBA teams that need somebody to come in, backing somebody up and playing the right way,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson told FloHoops in February, during former 49ers Ware’s run to First Team All-NBL designation. 

R.J. Hampton may be one of the NBL’s Next Stars, but the league has other prospective next stars lined up who could make the jump to the NBA. The high-profile addition of a player like Hampton can only help in attracting more of the basketball world’s attention to Australia.

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