CAIRNS, Australia (AP) — LaMelo Ball had a career-high 24 points for his National Basketball League team in Australia on Saturday. R.J. Hampton didn't last long in his.
Ball hit five 3-pointers and had eight assists and six rebounds to lead the Illawarra Hawks to a 101-91 win over the Cairns Taipans.
Hampton took exception to some close guarding by South East Melbourne guard Ben Madgen in the early stages of a 103-78 loss by his New Zealand Breakers to the Phoenix at Melbourne Arena.
The pair exchanged words as Madgen wound up on the floor after being fouled, while Hampton also clashed with John Roberson as the incident escalated. The 18-year-old American point guard picked up a technical foul and an unsportsmanlike foul for his part in the incident, seeing him ejected with barely four minutes gone.
Hampton, the No. 5 recruit in the U.S. according to 247sports.com, passed in May on playing for Kansas, Memphis or NCAA runner-up Texas Tech this season. Instead, he's playing in the NBL in that league's "Next Stars" program to attract elite NBA prospects.
Ball played previously in Lithuania and is the third brother from the family known for the "Big Baller Brand" apparel company. Terry Armstrong, a four-star recruit who passed on playing for Arizona this season, has a foot injury and has only played a few minutes of one game for South East Melbourne.
After Saturday's game, Illawarra coach Matt Flinn said despite speculation over whether Ball might finish out the season for the Hawks, he expects the American to stick around.
"As far as I'm concerned he's contracted for the season and he's buying in like every other player we've got," Flinn told Australian Associated Press. "I hear speculation but we just treat it day by day. You saw a guy tonight that who is really invested in his team and if you go down and sit in the locker room you'll see a kid who is really invested in his teammates."
Ball, tipped as a potential top NBA draft pick, has had plenty of scouts following the team.
"Everyone saw tonight what we see a lot in practice," Flinn said. "He's very talented and he gets talked about in the draft circles for a reason because he can do things and get to spaces on the floor that some others can't. He's been challenged a lot in this league with his handles and a lot of people have tried to get after him and he keeps ticking those boxes."
Ball is averaging 14.6 points in nine games and leads the NBL in steals with 1.9 per game.
Adding to the speculation about Ball's early departure back to the U.S. is that Illawarra is unlikely to be in contention for the playoffs in the last month of the season. Saturday's win was only Illawarra's second of the season, both against Cairns, which is also near the bottom of the standings.
At Cairns, Hampton said he would keep standing up for himself after his team's third consecutive defeat.
"Madgen, I think he kind of gave me a little shoulder in my back on a screen," Hampton said. "I thought it was kind of dirty so I came back, gave him a little shove, you can call it a flop if you want to or not, but he fell.
"John Roberson came, he pushed me, kinda gave it the same thing Madgen did and then I think he said something to me that I didn't like, so I went for him and that was the end of that."
Hampton said he would continue to play aggressively.
"I regret it for my team because I let my team down, I should have been in the game," Hampton said. "But as far as the way I handled myself, I'm not going to let anybody disrespect me. I know that the game is physical, I've played against physical people. But I think there is a difference between being physical and being dirty."
South East Melbourne coach Simon Mitchell rejected any suggestion of dirty play from his team after hearing of Hampton's post-match comments.
"Nah, he needs to be better than that, it wasn't dirty," Mitchell said. "It's a tough person's game ... he's got to get better at handling that. If that's the way he's going to react, then he's going to see a lot more of it."
Hampton is averaging 9.9 points per game in eight games for the Breakers.
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