The Orlando Magic need to take their investment in R.J. Hampton more seriously.
The 20-year-old guard has been a curiosity ever since he decided to forgo college and play for the New Zealand Breakers for his gap year before joining the NBA. His struggles there, like fellow rookie Cole Anthony’s struggles, caused him to drop from a surefire Lottery pick to the back end of the first round.
Still, even in his limited time, his skills have been clear. And while Hampton has gotten more playing time since joining the Magic, it still does not feel like enough.
With Markelle Fultz set to return next season and the potential the Magic could add another guard — and especially another point guard in this year’s Draft — this is a time where the Magic need to test Hampton and figure out what they truly have.
The Orlando Magic’s acquisition of R.J. Hampton brought in a solid youngster with a lot of upside. But the clock is always ticking for young players and the Magic need to play Hampton more and figure out what they have.
Hampton began his career on an experienced playoff team fresh off a run to the conference finals meaning he did not see the court often. In only 9.3 minutes per game, he averaged 2.6 points, 1.6 rebounds and 0.6 assists per game. Hampton appeared in only 25 games for the Nuggets and only played more than 12 minutes in a game seven times with Denver.
Even though there was a small sample size, the Magic valued him so much that they insisted on acquiring him in the Aaron Gordon trade, much to the Nuggets’ reluctance.
It is interesting to consider what Hampton may have been thinking at that moment. Rookie Wire’s Cody Taylor wrote an article about him when the trade went down.
Here is an excerpt from that story detailing what he said during his introductory press conference:
“I think my reaction to being on a new team is a fresh start,” Hampton said. “I come into the Magic organization into a rebuilding process — a lot of young guys, a lot of young talent. I think I am one of those guys that can contribute to the Magic not only this year but for years to come.”
Hampton later said in a chat on Locker Room that the Nuggets ultimately concluded they could not give the young player the space to grow and develop in their system with their laser focus on the title. Hampton needed a space where he could get guaranteed playing time and make a few mistakes.
While Hampton dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s, one cannot imagine this was the start to his NBA career that he wanted. He may have given himself the expectation to be a starter on the team when he was moved.
Despite added playing time, Hampton has still had his struggles. Expected struggles, but struggles nonetheless.
After all, the Orlando Magic have the 27th-best record in the league. Unfortunately for him, he has only had the opportunity to start one game. Ironically, it was against the Denver Nuggets. He had 16 points, four rebounds and three assists in the Magic’s 119-109 loss on April 4.
That is not to say that the 20-year-old has not seen an increased role with his new team. His minutes have increased to 23 minutes per game to go along with 8.9 points, 4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game.
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Hampton has put his speed on display most of all with his end-to-end speed creating highlights at every turn.
Coach Steve Clifford has been careful with Hampton’s development though. He is putting him at shooting guard for the most part, hoping to limit his playmaking mistakes and give him a chance to work off the ball. Hampton still feels like a natural ball-handler in the end, but he has a lot he still needs to learn.
Hampton does not play like a rookie who was traded up for in the draft and subsequently moved mid-season to a lottery team. He never looks rushed when he gets minutes. A lot of young players will over-extend themselves in an effort to impress their coaches with the hope of increasing their role.
Wednesday’s game was a great example of what Magic fans should be excited about. At no point in the Orlando Magic’s 109-104 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers did Hampton look out of place. While he did not make the game-changing passes of someone like Russell Westbrook, he never stalled the offense and seldom passed the ball into the pressure of the Cavaliers defense.
Hampton posts 8.0 drives per 75 possessions, according to Basketball-Index. His 63.64-percent adjusted field goal percentage at the rim ranks in the top quarter of the league. He does not create a lot of assists but the potential for him to get there is clear.
His athleticism is also something to be admired. With 9:34 left in the second quarter on Wednesday, Hampton drove to the basket and finished an incredible reverse layup.
Hampton’s defense is his most admirable skill.
He shows promise as an off-ball defender. He does a great job of denying the ball and at times he does well to rotate to players on the perimeter if his teammates have to leave their defensive assignment.
Hampton has 1.1 steals per 75 possessions, putting him in the top quarter of the league in that category. And his speed and ball-handling allow him to take steals and turn them immediately into points.
You also have to appreciate his spatial awareness on that side of the court displaying high IQ for such a young age.
They all come in flashes though. He still makes a lot of young player mistakes and has trouble identifying situations and flying back to his man at the 3-point line. But all the tools for him to be a strong defensive player are abundantly present.
What does this all mean for his future with the Orlando Magic? His minutes have ranged from 28 against the Pacers on April 25th, to 17 against Chicago on the 14th. One would imagine his rookie experience has been frustrating.
The Magic likely have legitimate plans for Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton who were both a part of the Aaron Gordon trade. The tandem could create one of the best defensive backcourts in the NBA someday.
But the Magic need to give Hampton consistent minutes and turn him loose to get there.
Hampton will have a long road to the starting lineup with Markelle Fultz returning from his torn ACL next season.
With that being said, Fultz will be the first to say that nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Hampton was not brought in to simply motivate the current point guards on the depth chart and he should be given the proper opportunity to display himself to the front office and coaching staff.
Hampton looks comfortable on all three levels of offense but he has a long way to go. That kind of development is hard to progress during practice.
Orlando might want to consider playing him more minutes with only 10 games left to go this season. The only thing the team is playing for at this point is the amount of lottery balls in the 2022 draft.
It is not uncommon for head coaches and front offices to have differing opinions on what a team should be doing at any given moment. Coaches are normally concerned with what gives them the best chance to win each night and GMs would rather see what they have invested their resources into.
When Clifford returns to the coaching duties of the team, Hampton should be his top priority. The Magic can not afford to enter the 2021 offseason with more questions at the point guard position than answers during such a vital time in their rebuilding process.