Orlando Magic rookie R.J. Hampton’s Rookie of the Month a breakthrough with warnings

The final weeks of the Orlando Magic’s season were usually pretty bereft of anything positive. The team had been eliminated from the playoffs and injuries had gutted the team pretty clearly. Orlando had signed a bunch of two-way players and 10-day contracts to try to get to the end of the season.

The Magic were trying to get to the end of the season and learn what they could about their exceedingly young roster.

It was in this context that R.J. Hampton had his breakthrough in May.

Hampton averaged 16.0 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game and 5.6 assists per game while shooting a 53.5-percent true shooting percentage and 50.5-percent effective field goal percentage including 43.5-percent from beyond the arc.

Hampton flirted with a triple-double on a few occasions and had back-to-back games with double-doubles (one with rebounds and one with assists) displaying his potential versatility and range.

With more playing time and the chance to get into a rhythm after missing time just before the trade due to health and safety protocols, Hampton looked every bit the top high school prospect he was before deciding to go to New Zealand to play in the NBL.

Undoubtedly, Hampton was the most exciting thing going for the Magic in the final weeks of the season. That helped him earn the Eastern Conference’s Rookie of the Month for the final month of the season.

Those eight games were the best the Magic saw of Hampton and a promise of what he can become.

R.J. Hampton had a breakthrough in the final weeks of the season as he started accumulating stats. But the way the Orlando Magic used him and how the season ended should raise some caution.

Everything late in the season needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially for a team struggling as much as the Magic were.

Coach Steve Clifford spent the last few weeks of the season trying to find meaning and help the team make some individual progress. He warned that individual stats should get taken with some grains of salt.

Hampton’s turn was exciting and promising. But how real was it?

Numbers that occur in games that are blowouts or already decided are not of much use. There is a fair amount of stat-padding going on. And while for a young player like Hampton, in his rookie year and with limited playing time with the team that drafted him before the trade to the Magic, every minute on the floor is valuable, the question remains: What is real?

Competitive vs. non-competitive time

From May 3 to the end of the season, R.J. Hampton played in roughly 128.5 minutes where the score was within 15 points in the month of May across seven games. He scored 53 points, shot 21 for 55 (38.2 percent), two for six from deep and tallied 27 assists and 26 rebounds.

Per 36 minutes then, Hampton averaged 14.9 points per 36 minutes and 7.6 assists per 36 minutes. Overall, Hampton posted 19.1 points per 36 minutes and 6.7 assists per 36 minutes.

He played the entire fourth quarter in six games — including two close games at Detroit and at Charlotte. Immediately then, there should be some fishiness going on with odd playing rotations and decisions the Orlando Magic made as they drifted to the end of the season.

In his minutes where the game was more than a 15-point difference, Hampton scored a total of 54 points, shot 19 for 36 (52.8-percent), hit on 5 of 10 3-pointers and dished out 13 assists in nearly 81 minutes.

Per 36 minutes in this non-competitive time, Hampton averaged 24.1 points per 36 minutes and 5.8 assists per 36 minutes.

This non-competitive time included 12 points, four assists and eight rebounds in nearly 20.5 minutes during his near triple-double in the team’s penultimate game against the Philadelphia 76ers and 13 points, three assists and five rebounds in nearly 18 minutes during the blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

In May, the Magic had a -3.4 net rating with Hampton on the floor (109.1 points per 100 possessions and 112.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). That was the second-best mark on the team in the month. But again, more than one-third of those minutes came with the deficit greater than 15 points.

Lineup context

This does not take away that R.J. Hampton played well and that he was capable of doing the things he was doing. It is better to see him putting up all those points and stats than not even in minutes that are not having any impact on the end result of games.

And lineup context matters, but it should also be clear that Hampton’s breakthrough late in the season was not everything it was cracked up to be.

The most common lineup Hampton played in was with Chasson Randle, Sindarius Thornwell, Ignas Brazdeikis and Donta Hall (48 minutes together). That group had a +4.6 net rating on the floor together despite scoring less than 100 points per 100 possessions.

That is not exactly a lineup that is going to tell us a ton about Hampton or how he fits into the larger team context.

In May, he played 95 minutes with Mohamed Bamba and netted a -1.7 net rating in their time on the floor together. That was the fifth-most frequent pairing for Hampton in May.

R.J. Hampton played 67 minutes with Cole Anthony, his eighth-most frequent pairing, and posted a +9.5 net rating (including a 121.6 offensive rating). He had a +10.6 net rating in 45 minutes with Wendell Carter.

In some respects, this kind of analysis is unfair to Hampton and what he did.

He just happened to be the young player who got paired with the team’s end-of-bench players the most. That context matters and colors some of his minutes, but it still does not take away from the times where he was really successful and how he might still fit into the team at large.

And that might have been part of the team’s development plan for Hampton anyway. They put him in lineups where he would be able to have some free reign to distribute and pick up these counting stats to gain confidence. Clearly, when he did play meaningful minutes, he still played well and was a key part of the win over the Detroit Pistons.

Building to next season

None of this should take away from R.J. Hampton’s earning for the Rookie of the Month Award or the progress he made. Hampton was very good with the minutes he was given. May will be a fantastic springboard into his offseason — which has already started if his Instagram is to be believed.

But Hampton is proof that numbers late in the season of a losing team should get taken with a grain of salt. This is still a rookie who had his struggles playing consistently in minutes that mattered against quality teams.

He built up strong counting stats in minutes that had no bearing on the impact of many games and against opponents who likely will not be in the NBA and playing with teammates who likely will not be on the Magic.

The takeaway from all this is that Hampton’s trajectory is probably more uncertain than any other player on the team. The reality is the Magic have probably seen less of Hampton than they realize because of this discrepancy from the end of the season.

There is undoubtedly promise. These numbers and play do not come out of nowhere. It is not like the Magic’s two-way players were consistently putting up these kinds of numbers. Hampton is clearly a step above.

But Orlando will have to figure out early on next year just how good Hampton is and just how much of his late-season play was real.