R.J. Hampton thought Detroit Pistons would draft him. Now he gets his chance

Detroit Free Press

R.J. Hampton purchased a front row seat in Orlando to watch his old team play his new team Thursday.

He was waived by the Magic on Tuesday after two years with the organization, drafted 24th overall in 2020 by the Denver Nuggets before being traded to Orlando midway through his rookie season in the Aaron Gordon deal.

The Detroit Pistons had interest in Hampton leading up to that November draft, sources told the Free Press in 2020, and held an in-person interview with him.

It just so happened the Pistons opened their post-All Star break schedule with a trip to Orlando. After Hampton cleared waivers, the parties reached an agreement. He sat courtside as the Pistons fell to the Magic at the buzzer, 108-106. The signing was made official shortly after the game, and Hampton flew to Detroit that night.

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Hampton, 22, hasn’t practiced with his new team, but made his debut during the Pistons’ 95-91 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, playing nearly five minutes in the second quarter and logging a steal and no shot attempts.

He revealed afterwards he thought he was going to Detroit on draft night. But the Pistons ended up taking Killian Hayes (7), Isaiah Stewart (16) and Saddiq Bey (19).

“I always liked the Pistons organization,” Hampton said in the Little Caesars Arena home locker room. “When they came down to visit me, it was very good and I had good conversations, good workouts. I knew they liked me and they were interested. You never know when you’re going to see somebody else again. Now I’m here, and I’m excited.”

Just like with James Wiseman, the Pistons are intrigued by Hampton’s untapped potential. He was a consensus five-star recruit in 2019 before going overseas to play for the New Zealand Breakers. In three NBA seasons and 142 games, he’s averaging seven points, 2.9 rebounds and two assists in just under 19 minutes per game.

Hampton was once considered a potential top-five pick in 2020. He’s 6 feet 5 and athletic — fast with the ball in his hands and bouncy. He had question marks regarding his feel as a playmaker and outside shooter, and those questions have yet to be answered. He’s a career 33.7% 3-point shooter, and has dished 118 more assists (279) than turnovers (161) in his career thus far. He has lacked playing time and reps.

He fell toward the back of Orlando’s rotation, as the Magic are deep at guard with 2021 fifth overall pick Jalen Suggs, Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony and Michigan State alumnus Gary Harris. The Pistons are also deep at guard, with Jaden Ivey and Hayes manning their starting backcourt positions. But they believe there’s room for another young guard.

“He’s a young guy coming in trying to figure it out,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said after practice Friday. “His talent, he’s a very talented young man, athletic, runs the floor quick with speed. But 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 where he is, see how he fits in and see where he belongs.”

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Hampton worked out with former NBA sharpshooter Mike Miller in the months leading up to the draft. At the time, Miller had recently completed a two-year stint as an assistant coach with the Memphis Tigers under Penny Hardaway. It was in Memphis that Hampton had his pre-draft meeting with Casey and general manager Troy Weaver.

In an interview with the Free Press that offseason, Miller praised Hampton’s progress as a shooter and feel for the game. Hampton worked out with Hardaway as well, and Hampton told the Free Press at the time he was confident he could eventually become a high-30s percentage outside shooter in the NBA. In Detroit, he’ll have a chance to prove the work he has put in can pay off.

“I think my biggest takeaway, probably from Penny, is just there’s so many reads on the court that, as a lead guard you have to make, and there’s certain things that he teaches me that I would’ve never seen before,” Hampton told the Free Press in 2020. “And being the caliber of player that he was. And from Mike, shooting is simple. There’s an art to shooting and once you gain that confidence and once you build those mechanics, I think anyone can be a great shooter.”

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Hampton’s ability to shoot and pass will dictate his role with the Pistons (15-46) through their final 21 games. Casey said the coaching staff will evaluate his ability to play both point guard and shooting guard.

“That’s where R.J. is right now, is making sure he’s in that mode of making the right decisions with the ball,” Casey said. “We know you’re a great athlete, we know you have speed. Now what? Now what do I do when the defense shows up and I gotta make a decision? Defensively being solid, not gambling, all of those things are things that we want to see and develop with him and Ivey. They’re in the same boat.”

“I feel like I can play the one if I need to, or play the two,” Hampton added Saturday. “I’m a guy that can shoot the ball, athletic. I take pride on the defensive end. Whenever I’m in there, I always give 110% energy and that was what everybody in here expects. That’s just the way I feel like I can help the team.”

Hampton comes to Detroit with some familiarity: The Dallas native grew up playing AAU basketball against Arlington native Cade Cunningham. He said he and Cunningham have known each other since they were four years old.

Hampton is also a fan of Weaver, who still believes his 2020 draft target has more to show.

“Troy’s a great dude,” Hampton said. “Somebody that’s real, somebody that expects a lot from his players but also knows what it means to develop young guys. That’s something I look forward to, being in an organization that takes the time with players, takes the time to figure out the areas that they’re really good in and weaknesses and coming together and making it all fit. I think he’s great in that aspect and I’m excited about it.”

Catch our podcast “The Pistons Pulse” every Tuesday morning at 5 and on demand on freep.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. See all of our podcasts and daily voice briefings at freep.com/podcasts.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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