R.J. Hampton's Whirlwind Path to the NBA

The Denver rookie caught up with The Crossover to discuss playing in his first season and more.
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If there’s an immediate area of improvement for Nuggets' rookie R.J. Hampton to focus on, it may be his powers of deduction.

You see, Hampton, the 24th pick in the 2020 NBA draft, happens to be the godson of NFL legend Deion Sanders, who is close with Hampton’s father. Hampton knew the two-time Super Bowl champ as “Uncle Prime” growing up. Except he didn’t quite understand where the nickname came from.

“For the first eight or nine years of my life, I never knew why I called him Uncle Prime,” Hampton says. “And then one day, my dad was out of town. I think my mom was at work. And [Sanders] comes to pick me up from school. He’s in the carpool line, and my teachers are going crazy. I'm nine years old like, what are they talking about?”

Hampton, who grew up in Prosper, Texas, would eventually start piecing together why his uncle was such a buzzworthy person after visiting his house and seeing NFL and MLB jerseys hung up on the wall. But it took even a couple more years after that for him to realize the magnitude of Uncle Prime’s impact.

“I was about 12 or 13, and I was at my friend’s house and we’re watching NFL Network,” Hampton says. “They were counting down the 100 greatest players, and they had [Sanders] at like number eight. I was like, ‘Whoa, I did not know this.’ I had no idea the first 12 years of my life this is one of the greatest football players to step on the field.”

Fortunately for Hampton, the Nuggets aren’t asking him to be a detective. So far, the rookie has played sparing minutes after a whirlwind path to the NBA. Once a prized high school prospect, Hampton skipped college to play professionally in New Zealand in 2019. He returned to the States in February 2020, only for the country to enter the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic a few weeks later. (“I feel like I haven’t been in the real America since 2019,” says Hampton.)

After the draft on Nov. 18, he worked out in Texas for a little over a week before landing in Denver on Nov. 28. He immediately quarantined for five days, then jumped right into training camp before the preseason began on Dec. 12, all while attending rookie transition meetings over Zoom. Earlier in January, Hampton caught up with SI to discuss his hectic path to the pros, talking trash in practice, and much more.

SI: When you look back on the decisions you made to get yourself to the NBA, first reclassifying, then going to New Zealand, what’s the biggest takeaway you've had from that process?

R.J. Hampton: I would say the biggest takeaway for me was be patient, always. You know, everyone has a different plan. There's guys in the league that have been No. 1 picks and haven't panned out. There's guys in the league that have been the 50th pick and are All-Stars. I mean, everyone has their own plan. Everyone has their own journey. I feel like God has a plan for me. Being in New Zealand, playing with a great team over there and learning a lot. And then coming straight to the NBA and playing with another really great team with two superstars in Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić. It’s all about timing. And I think I learned that a lot last year.

SI: I wish more guys would not get themselves involved with the NCAA for a lot of reasons. Do you see yourself as someone who wants to be a trailblazer in that regard? Is that advice that you would give to younger guys?

RH: For me, I think when I first did it, I was thinking about myself and how I can get better. But I really do want to be a trailblazer in that aspect. I also really don't want to start talking about what that did for me with going overseas and going professional at 18 until my work is stamped. And when I'm three, four or five years in the league, guys are gonna wake up and see like, whoa, he's kind of ahead of his time.

SI: When you go against a guy like Jamal Murray, how intense does it get in practice between you and the vets?

RJ: Oh yeah, I think all the vets respect me. I play really hard, but they definitely respect that. And, you know, every single time Jamal's in practice, or Will, Gary, Monta, or PJ, and, we're doing five-on-five, three-on-three, whatever it is, I'm going at them like they're my little brother. I'm going at them just as hard as I would go against my little brother. I think they respect that. And I think that's just gonna make me better and also gonna make them better.

SI: Do you talk a little trash to some of your veteran teammates at practice?

RH: Oh, they know. I get called the loud mouth sometimes. I'm always hype. If I score a bucket on Jamal, I'm gonna tell them about it. But they know that's me. And they know that that's something I can bring to the team. And they know that's something that's going to help us all in the long run.

SI: How difficult is it every day dealing with playing this season through a pandemic? How difficult is it to navigate everything that's going on?

RH: Yeah, I mean, it's very difficult. I mean, we have like 20-, 40-, 100-page letters that we have to read, and no one really reads them for real. We just talk to our team manager, our team doctors and be like, “O.K., what can we do? What can’t we do? Give us the slowed-down version.” It’s hard. It's a little boring. But at the same time, we were getting paid to do a job.

SI: Have you had a moment yet where you're either on the bench or getting ready for a game when you saw a guy and you were like, “Man, that's really him on the court”?

RH: Oh, I think probably the one time I had that—so I'm from Texas, James Harden, he's played in Houston for forever. I used to play against his AAU team when I was in eighth grade and coming up through high school. My first time really getting to be on the same court with him and watch him play, it was just like, this is easy for him. This is one of the best players to ever play basketball.