For Orlando Magic guard R.J. Hampton, the last three weeks have been a microcosm of his third year in the league.
He’s had nearly as many games playing fewer than 12 minutes (six) than playing 20 or more (seven), including two November games he was a healthy scratch vs. Houston and Chicago.
A fluctuation in minutes has been consistent for Hampton entering Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Atlanta Hawks at Amway Center (7 p.m., Bally Sports Florida/Bally Sports+/FM 96.9 The Game).
“I’ve had a chance to lock in,” Hampton recently told the Orlando Sentinel. “Not knowing when you’re going in, you kind of got to be prepared for anything. That makes me even more locked in.”
Despite showing improvements, Hampton’s spot in the gameplan hasn’t been as solidified as it was in 2021-22.
He was a consistent part of that rotation, averaging 21.9 minutes and playing in all 64 games he was available for, including 14 starts.
Through the first 21 games today, he’s been a healthy scratch three times even though the Magic (5-16) have had player-availability issues.
He’s averaging 17.2 minutes after the recent stretch of five games he’s played at least 20 minutes — averaging 24.4, including 21 in the loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday.
The spike in minutes was in part because guards Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz weren’t available and Jalen Suggs was either out or limited for most of them because of right ankle soreness.
“It really [doesn’t] change anything,” Hampton said when asked about the fluctuation in his role. “The coaches give me confidence every game whether I’m playing or not. My teammates give me confidence every game, so whether I don’t play for two games or 10 minutes [in] one game, I feel like I’ve been prepared by them.”
His averages of 7.2 points, 1.7 assists and 1.7 rebounds are slightly down from last year but he’s playing 4 1/2 fewer minutes.
Hampton’s effective field goal percentage (51.5%) — a formula that adjusts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers — would be a career-high even as he goes through a shooting slump from beyond the arc after a hot start (19.2% on 3.7 attempts in his last seven games compared with 55% on 1.8 attempts in his first 11).
He’s knocked down 4 of his 20 catch-and-shoot 3s (20%) during that seven-game stretch — which accounts for three-quarters of his 3s attempted during the cold streak. Hampton shot 39.8% on catch-and-shoot 3s last season and 40.8% the prior season, providing optimism he’ll turn it around.
His improved 2-point accuracy (50.9%, up from 40.5% last season) and finishing around the rim (68% within 5 feet, up from 47.9%) demonstrate the game is slowing down for him and he’s better weaponizing his speed — areas he wanted to improve over the summer.
“R.J. has been fantastic,” coach Jamahl Mosley said. “He has been so good at staying ready, which we’ve talked about being a role for him. He works before practice, after practice — he’s putting the time in.
“It says a lot about him in that he’s making sure he’s putting the work in. That’s so important for these young guys to understand how much work they have to put in. You don’t know when your number is going to be called.”
There could be more uncertainty for Hampton moving forward — short- and long-term.
Gary Harris returned and made his season debut in that win over Chicago and has been a key part of the rotation since, starting the last two games when the Magic were without guards Anthony, Fultz and Suggs. Anthony and Fultz will be available to make their returns Wednesday.
The Magic getting healthier could impact Hampton’s role — something he says he isn’t worried about.
“I just try to worry about each day,” Hampton said. “You never know what can happen in this business. No one expected us to have this many players out at this point in the season. You can’t worry or think about that when you’re focused on the right now.”
Hampton, the No. 24 pick in the 2020 draft, will become an unrestricted free agent in July after the Magic didn’t exercise their fourth-year option for the 2023-24 season.
The Magic can still re-sign Hampton as a free agent. If they re-signed him, the Magic would be capped at paying Hampton $4.2 million in the first year of a new contract — the amount of his declined option.
During a June 20 pre-draft news conference, president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman mentioned how important it is to “keep the pathway clear for our young players to develop” when discussing how many more rookies the Magic wanted to add to a team stocked with youth.
Hampton sees it, even if it hasn’t been explicitly broken down to him.
“As far as [with] my own personal development, I know there’s a clear pathway,” he said. “I can see it for myself.
“It’s always been, ‘We want you to develop,’ and coach Mose has always believed in me. I kind of feel like it’s something I’ve made in my head, my own clear pathway, and maybe something that hasn’t been totally expressed here but I don’t think it’s not been expressed for a reason, you know what I’m saying?”
He’s felt support from the coaching staff through the uncertainties.
“It’s good to have coaches that care, coaches that want to see you succeed,” Hampton said. “Whether I’m getting minutes or not getting minutes, when I’m in the game they believe in me and I feel like that’s part of why I can play my game and perform.”
Hampton’s also in the process of figuring out which agency he’s going to sign with next.
He signed with LIFT Sports Management, founded by former UF and Magic guard/forward Mike Miller and CEO Donnie McGrath in the summer of 2020, as the agency’s first signing after playing for the New Zealand Breakers of the National Basketball League in 2019-20. He started the process of leaving the agency in late October.
Through it all, the short-term and long-term uncertainties, Hampton keeps his focus on what he can control — the work.
“I’m going to stay in the gym, stay working and I know I got God on my side,” he said. “Whatever happens should be in my favor.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.