If news of R.J. Hampton joining the Pistons seemed to come out of nowhere, it came nearly three years after Hampton expected it.
“I thought I was going to Detroit, honestly, when the draft came around,” Hampton said after making his Pistons debut Saturday, a five-minute first-half cameo in Saturday’s 95-91 loss to Toronto. “I always liked the Pistons organization. When they came down to visit me, it was very good. I had good conversations, good workouts. I knew they liked me and were interested. Like (Dwane Casey) told me yesterday, you never know when you’re going to see somebody again.”
News of Orlando waiving Hampton broke on Tuesday and was immediately followed with reporting of the Pistons as his landing spot. The Pistons wound up with three picks in Troy Weaver’s first NBA draft, 2020, and picked Killian Hayes seventh, Isaiah Stewart 16th and Saddiq Bey 19th. Even after trading Bey, they now have four players from that draft class with the additions of James Wiseman (second) and Hampton, the 24th pick by Denver.
At the trade deadline of Hampton’s rookie year, the Nuggets – who’d advanced to the Western Conference finals months before – shipped him to Orlando as part of the package to get Aaron Gordon for a title push. But Hampton got caught in a numbers crunch with the Magic, who already had Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony and a few months later would draft Jalen Suggs fourth overall.
The composite recruiting rankings for the high school class of 2019 had Wiseman first, Stewart second and Hampton in a tie for seventh with Jaden McDaniels. Hampton, who bypassed college to play in New Zealand, was teammates with Stewart on a pair of gold medal-winning USA Basketball teams in 2017 and 2018. His ties with another Pistons teammate go back even further.
“I knew Cade (Cunningham) when I was 4 or 5,” said Hampton, who grew up, as Cunningham did, in the Dallas metroplex and crossed paths with him frequently on the grass-roots circuit. “We lived like 30 minutes away but we always played against each other.”
There’s no guarantee they’ll play together with the Pistons since Cunningham is out for the season, which in the moment gives Hampton the space to make an impression. He gets the season’s final 22 games to make the case for being on the roster when the 2021 draft’s No. 1 pick returns for the 2023-24 season. Casey, as he proved on Saturday by throwing Hampton into the mix despite not having the benefit of a Pistons practice under his belt yet, is all in with giving Hampton a look.
“He’s athletic. Speed. Getting downhill,” Casey said, ticking off Hampton’s strengths. “He’s long for a guard. I think his challenge will be to see if he can be a point guard.”
Hampton put his potential on display at Little Caesars Arena during his rookie season played in a mostly empty arena during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 35 minutes off the bench, Hampton sparked Orlando to a 119-112 win with 16 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists, two blocked shots and a steal, hitting 5 of 11 shots, 1 of 2 3-pointers and 5 of 6 free throws. It’s that type of across-the-board impact that is Hampton’s appeal. Now the challenge becomes to find one or two areas to kick it up a notch and have a defining NBA skill.
“I wouldn’t say right now I’m great at something,” Hampton said. “That’s something I’m looking forward to working on, but I always feel like my attitude, effort and defensive ability has never changed even in Orlando. I was guarding some of the best players each night last year when I was playing. That’s something that, once I get this wind back and get my feet under me, that I look to bring and I feel that’s one of the elite skills I have.”
Hampton is a career .337 3-point shooter while taking a little more than a third of his shots from long distance. He rebounds well for a guard and he’s shown flashes of being a plus playmaker. But his playing time has come in fits and starts, so the jury is still out on what he can become – and that’s what the Pistons hope to determine over the final quarter of the season.
“He’s another young guy coming in trying to figure it out,” said Casey, who along with Weaver traveled to Memphis during the pre-draft process to meet with and work out Hampton. “Very talented young man, athletic, runs the floor with speed. He just got caught in a numbers game and didn’t have the opportunity in Orlando. Another guy, like Wiseman, that’s going to have an opportunity to play, to figure out and see where he is, see how he fits and see where he belongs.”
Hampton had a hunch he belonged in Detroit on draft night and, nearly three years later, embraces the opportunity to make it a reality now.
“I look at the Pistons as a fine organization, somewhere where people are valued, people can play their game and really come into their roles. When I was talking to my agent, this was a great spot. He likes the organization, he likes coach Casey, Mr. Weaver. A lot of factors went into it, but at the end of the day I’ve liked the Pistons for a very long time.”