Orlando Magic guard R.J. Hampton begins to slow things down

When R.J. Hampton arrived in Orlando, it was clear pretty early the kind of skill Hampton would bring to the team.

The first time he ran end to end in transition, Hampton’s talent was evident. This kid was just fast and bubbling with potential. He just needed the time to hone that.

The Orlando Magic gave the young guard plenty of time to do that. After he struggled to find playing time in the loaded Denver Nuggets roster, competing for a championship, Hampton arrived on a young, rebuilding team with nothing but playing time to give him.

Like so many things for young players, life in the NBA is about slowing down. For Hampton, since speed is his main weapon, this goes double.

When he goes too fast, he is out of control and prone to turnovers and taking the team out of rhythm. When he is in control of his pace, the talent that had him as one of the best players in his high school class is clear.

The question each night, and perhaps why Hampton’s minutes have been so inconsistent this season, is whether he will have that control.

R.J. Hampton is still learning how to control his tempo and speed. The Orlando Magic are seeing the young guard slow down of late.

The signs of late have been much better than earlier in the season. Hampton has looked poised and comfortable with the ball in his hands and on the attack. All the while, his defense has taken a sizable leap.

R.J. Hampton may not be getting the minutes many believe he deserves — Cole Anthony also might have gotten him in some trouble for publicly saying Hampton was frustrated with his lack of minutes after a strong showing against the Utah Jazz last week — but he is well on his way to getting there.

“As we continue to communicate with R.J., it’s just his comfort level being out there,” coach Jamahl Mosley said before Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks. “Talking about the things we need from him, his on-ball defense. We talk about being physical, being tenacious into the basketball and keeping it simple offensively. Moving the basketball when needed but just being able to attack the rim offensively. And in transition, getting out and pushing it.”

That is a simple way to put his role.

The Magic envision using the 6-foot-4 guard as a switchy defender. And then using that ability to create turnovers to get him out in space in transition. That last part has been difficult for the team so far.

But Hampton has started to put some of those pieces together and be the exact player they need him to be.

In other words, he is beginning to harness that raw athletic speed and turn it into something else.

Hampton finished his time with the Magic last year averaging 11.2 points and 5.0 rebounds per game with a 48.2-percent effective field goal percentage in 25.2 minutes per game. That was Hampton simply getting a taste of opportunity, something every raw prospect needs just to get themselves going.

So far this season, Hampton is averaging 7.1 points per game and 2.9 rebounds per game on a 50.0-percent effective field goal percentage in 18.0 minutes per game. His scoring and rebounding are down from last year on a per-36 minute basis too. But his efficiency is way up.

It is still early enough in the season that his numbers have not settled. Especially since it is easy to trade away some of his early struggles with his recent spurt.

The improvement in his play is not something anyone will see in the numbers though. It is more about the tempo and pace in which he played.

Hampton struggled especially early in the season with managing the team as the backup point guard and with turnovers and shot selection. Just watching him play, it almost felt like he was moving and thinking too fast and his body could not catch up.

There were several plays early in the season just like this one.

The Magic worked to get Hampton the ball on the move and going downhill. But he looks hurried and either drives himself into a trap where he gets stuck and picks up his dribble or he just goes so headlong into the defense that he turns it over (as he does here) or throws up a wild shot.

There are still plenty of moments when Hampton gets that beeline to the basket and his 3-point shooting is significantly improved — 31.9-percent in his games with the Magic last year to 42.9-percent this year.

But the task was still about slowing down and playing under control. Hampton’s success is dependent on that.

Lately, that is what the Magic are seeing. And that is feeding the push to get him more minutes.

Look at how Hampton controls and changes his pace in this play:

Hampton picks up the steal and immediately starts the fast break. Instead of rushing headlong into the lane as he did on the previous clip, Hampton changes direction and forces the defense to collapse around him.

Slowing down that little bit has enabled his teammates to catch up to him and he is able to dish it to Franz Wagner in the corner for a three. Hampton still goes flying out of bounds after the pass, but this was a good bit of control to make a nice play.

Take this play too:

Like in the first clip, Hampton gets the ball on the move. The Utah Jazz are rightly worried about his ability to go straight to the basket. They have done a good job crowding the paint.

Instead of forcing his way inside, Hampton hits the turbo briefly to sell the drive, then stops, crosses over and pulls up at the elbow. Hitting that jumper is huge because it will force teams to play him differently and give him those driving lanes.

It is here where Hampton can again use his speed and his athleticism around the basket to finish. It is easy to see all the potential Hampton has.

It is also easy to see how Hampton is getting a better understanding of how to change his pace and use his speed more effectively and under control with the ball in his hands.

This will be key to him getting more minutes — he has played fewer than 20 minutes in the last two games.

So too will be his defense. And here, he is showing some really encouraging signs.

According to data from NBA.com, opponents are shooting 43.9-percent from the floor when Hampton is the closest defender. That is third among wing defenders on the Magic (Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner are better) but it is also 1.9 percentage points better than the expected field goal percentage.

It is a weird statistical paradox where Hampton is forcing a low field goal percentage but is also not making a positive impact in this crude metric.

Observationally, Hampton has certainly seemed more committed on the defensive end. And his speed and length have created a ton of promise on that end. But so far, the numbers have not caught up with it.

As much as Hampton needs to harness his speed offensively, it is on defense where he can truly make his impact. Staying committed on that end will open the pathway toward more minutes.

Like with everyone else on this young team, the Magic have to be patient and focused on the players’ development. They have to look for signs of improvement.

Hampton has shown that as he harnesses his incredible speed and athleticism and learns how to use it on the court.