Ex-prep star Hampton inks shoe deal with Li-Ning

After deciding to forgo college and join the Australia-based National Basketball League, RJ Hampton has signed a five-year footwear and apparel endorsement deal with Chinese brand Li-Ning.

The 6-foot-5 point guard, who had been one of the top-ranked recruits in the Class of 2019, is currently projected as the No. 6 pick in the 2020 NBA draft by ESPN's Jonathan Givony.

"My No. 1 goal is to play in the NBA," Hampton said during his NBL announcement in May on ESPN's Get Up. "I wanted to be an NBA player before I ever wanted to be a college player. This is about getting ready for the next level faster and more efficiently."

Li-Ning is best known for its signing of Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade in 2012, during the middle of the franchise's four straight NBA Finals appearances. The company had previously signed Shaquille O'Neal and Baron Davis to shoe deals, and more recently partnered with CJ McCollum, Evan Turner and a handful of other players.

"I really like their shoes," Hampton said. "[With] CJ and Dwyane Wade, it's going to be great."

The brand boasts more than 6,600 monobranded stores in China and primarily sells it shoes throughout the Asia market since being founded in 1991. Coincidentally, the company's stateside sports marketing rep, Tony Leng, is based in Dallas, a roughly 45-minute drive from Hampton's hometown of Little Elm, Texas.

Hampton and his father, Rod, met with Li-Ning several times in Texas, in Las Vegas during the NBA's Summer League and in Los Angeles during the ESPYS week before finalizing the endorsement contract.

"They're just a great company," Hampton said. "They've put a lot of work in with me, and they've really been behind me these last couple months, ever since I made my decision [to play in the NBL]."

Leng has visited Hampton frequently to watch his workouts, they've gotten to know each other through a series of dinners and have forged an early relationship over the past two months.

"He's a great guy and he was just telling me that after D-Wade and CJ, I could one day be the face of Li-Ning," Hampton said. "That's what I really want to do."

Once Hampton decided to go pro in May, his newly hired agent, Happy Walters at Catalyst Sports, began to set up a series of meetings and presentations with sneaker companies looking to sign him. The group received initial interest from Nike, Adidas, Li-Ning, Puma and Under Armour.

"Li-Ning understands RJ has tremendous upside as a player, but also as a brand," Rod Hampton said. "It was a very thorough process with lots of interest, so we really took our time as a family and with our agents to fully evaluate the pros and cons of each company."

Li-Ning proved to be most aggressive not only in its overall financial offer, which could escalate aggressively based on bonuses for Hampton's 2020 draft positioning, but also in offering both a signature shoe and signature apparel.

If drafted in the top 10 of the 2020 draft, the contract will become the richest Chinese shoe deal ever signed by a rookie. The deal's total value would've made him one of the four highest-earning players in this year's 2019 draft.

"Their belief in me was crazy," he said. "There's really no pressure to live up to that deal. I think I deserve that deal, with the work that I've put in."

Li-Ning has already created a custom "RJH" logo for a series of shirts and shorts that he has been working out in, as well as player exclusive colorways of the company's upcoming YuShuai XIII "Boom" model. With additional royalties from sales of every product bearing Hampton's name, his eventual signature shoe will drive the value of the lucrative multimillion-dollar deal even further.

"The ability to build a signature shoe and develop RJ's legacy together from day one is a special opportunity and everything we are looking for in a brand partner," the elder Hampton said. "This is a special opportunity for anyone, but especially an 18-year-old who is hungry to leave a lasting legacy."

Hampton isn't the first player to skip college for an overseas pro team. Eleven years ago this month, Brandon Jennings first made the jump, playing in Rome before becoming the No. 10 overall pick in the 2009 draft. Emmanuel Mudiay chose China for his in-between pro season, later being selected No. 7 overall in the 2015 draft. In 2016, Terrance Ferguson became the first to play in Australia, before going 21st in the 2017 draft.

All three players signed lucrative shoe deals with Under Armour in advance of their overseas seasons, adding to the money they each earned from playing. Hampton's situation is unique in that the similarly top-ranked guard didn't face any potential NCAA academic eligibility issues, like Jennings, Mudiay and Ferguson did before him.

"I could've went to any school that was recruiting me because of my test scores and grades," Hampton said.

"Both of my parents went to college," he said. "My mom got her master's degree. Education is a big thing in our family, but this is about focusing 100 percent on basketball. You can always go back to college, but there's only a short window as an athlete where you can play professional basketball, and I want to take advantage of that. I think that challenging yourself on a daily basis is the best way to improve."

Already, Hampton has leaned on a fellow Li-Ning athlete, McCollum, for advice and input, appearing on the Portland guard's "Pull Up" podcast and learning more about his experience with the brand and what's in store for him ahead in his career.

"Everyone [knows] Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, but I want to be the face of something global that's bigger than just the US," Hampton said. "I think with Li-Ning that I can do that."