Orlando Magic need a clearer plan to develop R.J. Hampton

R.J. Hampton has shown his willingness to do the extra work.

Volunteering for Summer League in his third season is something that is unusual for a young player. He showed commitment to do the extra work and be part of this team. Fighting for a contract and confirmation within this young team, Hampton had a lot to prove.

Hampton was not able to take full advantage of that opportunity. He struggled and left clear areas where he needed to improve. But even that information was valuable for the young player.

All Hampton seemed to do after that was do everything the Orlando Magic asked of him.

He was out of control in that Summer League run, he returned to the team and played throughout the preseason with much more composure and control. He seemed like he had put all the pieces together.

All he needed was an opportunity.

R.J. Hampton has shown tremendous growth from his Summer League struggles. But the Orlando Magic have struggled to make time for him and the young player has had to pick at the edges of opportunity.

On a young team that is depleted with injury though, Hampton has found himself the odd man out. Why that is the case has been a frustrating thing to answer with rookie Caleb Houstan and two-way player Kevon Harris getting minutes ahead of him.

Why Hampton is the odd man out is unknown — the Magic certainly have the incentive to see how Houstan looks after spending the 32nd overall pick on him in last year’s draft meanwhile the team is spending up its two-way games on Harris, who reportedly signed a two-year two-way deal.

But like the Magic’s other young players, Hampton needs a clear plan and a clearly defined role to succeed.

His minutes may be limited once the roster is at full health — also a possible reason the Magic are using this time to get longer looks at Houstan and Harris — but Hampton has proven himself over again as capable of playing a key role for the Magic. When he plays, he generally does well, shedding the things he struggled with last year and putting in a more focused and controlled effort.

It is the reason why Hampton’s yo-yoing minutes are so confusing.

Hampton is averaging 7.1 points per game and shooting 50.7 percent from the floor including 14 for 29 from beyond the arc. He has only 14 turnovers in 14 games this season, showing the improved decisionmaking the Magic needed to see.

More impressively perhaps, Hampton is averaging only 0.5 points per game less than last year despite playing in just 15.3 minutes per game, six whole minutes per game less than last year.

His numbers would be impressive if there was a large enough sample and a consistent enough role to feel some permanence.

Hampton is hitting shots from everywhere, but he just has not played enough to make any of these numbers feel consistent or permanent.

Hampton is scoring in isolation extremely effectively on that small sample. He is even showing continued signs defensively — including 1.7 steals per 75 possessions and 3.2 deflections per 75 possessions.

Hampton is not playing a ton, but he is active when he does play. That is usually the sign someone needs to get more entrenched in playing groups and the rotation.

But Hampton is still looking for a breakthrough and some consistency.

That is the biggest thing any young player needs: consistent playing time and a chance to show themselves on the floor. Hampton has had those opportunities in the past and while he had some rough edges to his game, he usually showed out.

That has been the case again this year. When Hampton has gotten opportunities, he has produced counting stats. It would be intriguing to see if he can keep that up and if the Magic can get that on a higher level.

He scored 15 points in 21 minutes in the loss to the Mavericks. He had 15 points in 20 minutes against the Golden State Warriors.

In 25.5 minutes in Saturday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, he scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting. And this was honestly the game where he played the most out of control.

That might have been the case in the first half, but Hampton made several key shots and plays in the fourth quarter. Surprisingly, Hampton actually got clutch minutes in Saturday’s game, finishing alongside Jalen Suggs in the backcourt.

There is clearly some trust in Hampton. Or, at the very least, Hampton has earned some equity with good play that has expanded his minutes.

But he still often remains the last player off the bench, often not playing in the first half and sometimes not even until the fourth quarter. That actually makes what Hampton is producing seemingly even more impressive. It is not easy to go from not playing and ramp up toward making an impact.

For sure, Hampton has played in some of the Magic’s worst lineups. The team has been depleted with injuries and Hampton’s most common lineup is 14 minutes with Mo Bamba, Kevon Harris, Paolo Banchero and Chuma Okeke. That is simply not enough time to draw any conclusions.

And that might be the point and the problem with the way the team has used Hampton so far this season.

Hampton simply has not had enough time on the court to show much of anything. The only thing fans can see at least is the consistent counting stats he brings and the energy he seems to bring on the floor. There is clearly something there that deserves some exploring.

Whether the team will explore it remains a mystery. The Magic are starting to get healthier and the opportunities will dry up in the next month as the team gets back to full health. Maybe Orlando will turn its attention elsewhere or count on someone they know in Hampton more at that time.

Everything is just undefined for Hampton. And that has ultimately hurt him this year and in the long run.

Of course, hanging in the background is Hampton’s status on the team. Like how he has been squeezed out of the rotation this year, he has been squeezed out of the team’s future plans too.

Hampton had his fourth-year rookie option declined. He will be turned into free agency next summer.

Through it all though, Hampton has continued to do the work. And when he comes on the court for the team he is hard not to notice. His energy and production have created a positive impact. He has shown genuine growth and improvement.

The Magic though need to find advantages wherever they can. And while they have a lot of young players to examine, Hampton should have earned some trust, the benefit of the doubt and time with the way he has played so far this season.

Orlando has a lot to manage. But the team needs a clearer plan for Hampton and to reward him for his strong play when the time comes.