Detroit — R.J. Hampton isn’t a fan of pizza, but he used the popular food item to describe his increased comfort level following his sixth game with the Pistons.
“I always tell myself, ‘When you put a pizza in the oven, you don’t like what it looks like after 20 seconds.’ You gotta let it cook for a minute. You take it out the oven once it cooks and then you eat your pizza,” Hampton told The Detroit News. “I’m finding my footing here and kind of understanding my role, what I want it to be.”
Hampton’s analogy was in response to the contrast between his first three games with the Pistons and his last three. The third-year guard had a rocky start when he first arrived in Detroit, and without much time to practice, he averaged 0.6 points, 1.6 rebounds and 0.3 assists on 1-of-7 shooting from the field.
In the wake of injuries to Killian Hayes and Alec Burks, an opportunity for more playing time has presented itself to Hampton, who’s averaging 10.6 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals on 49% from the floor in Detroit’s last three contests.
Hampton’s recent string of productivity stems from understanding the Pistons’ offensive and defensive systems, gaining chemistry with his new teammates and perhaps most importantly, playing with something to prove.
The Orlando Magic waived Hampton, a former 2020 first-round pick, on Feb. 21, after he spent parts of three seasons with the franchise. The 22-year-old then sat courtside at Amway Arena and watched his former team play his new team when the Pistons lost to Orlando on Feb. 23. After the game, Hampton was signed to a contract for the remainder of the season with the Pistons for another opportunity to showcase his skills.
Hampton scored 11 points off the bench in Tuesday’s loss to the Washington Wizards. He also drained two 3-pointers, including a catch-and-shoot triple at the third-quarter buzzer to give Detroit momentum going into a dramatic fourth quarter. Hampton was only a couple of steps away from the Pistons’ bench, so after the shot went through the net, he turned around and nodded his head as his teammates and coaches gave him high-fives.
Just as the Pistons lost in dramatic fashion to the Magic less than two weeks ago as Wendell Carter Jr. tipped in a missed layup at the buzzer, the same finish happened again on Tuesday, when Wizards center Daniel Gafford rebounded a floater by Bradley Beal and scored as time expired.
“The team is very new together,” Hampton said. “We have new guys, some that haven’t been in a lot of these situations. I’m young, too, in my third year. I’ve been in a lot of close games, a lot of situations in that manner. I just think it’s a learning experience. Just more communication from our end on defense on that last play to make sure we have Gafford boxed out, and then just executing what we drew up in the huddle on offense the play before.”
The Pistons are sitting at 15-51, the worst record in the NBA, and haven’t won a game since Feb. 10. However, three of the last four games were decided in single digits and for one of the teams trending in the direction toward getting the No. 1 pick — and presumably selecting Victor Wembanyama — the effort is still there to compete.
“I think this team is playing for pride, at this point,” Hampton said. “These last three games, yeah we haven’t won any, but just the fight that we have on a night-to-night basis. When there’s a lot of games being lost at the end of the season, I was in a position like that in Orlando. We were getting blown out at the end of the season. Guys were sitting, the other team’s best players weren’t playing, finishing games. They’re up by 30 at the half, 40 in the third, but the last three games — Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland played a great amount of the game, Damian Lillard played the whole game yesterday; you got Bradley Beal playing down to the wire today, so those are games (that opponents are) looking to come in and get a chill night, but I think as a team we take pride in wanting to play above people’s standards and what people think we are.”
Hours after Tuesday’s loss, Hampton posted a series of photos from the game on Instagram and captioned the post, “313.” The last slide was a clip of a press conference from Lions running back Jamaal Williams, who used an “ex-girlfriend and rebound” analogy to describe newfound success from his old team to his new team.
Hampton is playing with more confidence. It’s starting to show with his menacing defense and his improved shot selection. Even if he doesn’t score, Hampton can use his athleticism with his perimeter defense, which the Pistons desperately need most nights.
It is unclear how long Burks (left foot) or Hayes (left hand) will be sidelined with their respective injuries, but the longer they sit, the more runway Hampton has to prove he’s worthy of a permanent deal this summer — in Detroit or elsewhere.
And with 16 games left, Hampton has ample time — similarly to his pizza analogy — to cook.