Nuggets rookie RJ Hampton isn’t overthinking this.
Blessed with an opportunity to play extended minutes Saturday, Hampton buzzed around the court like a fly on Red Bull.
In his first real significant action, Hampton secured career-highs in minutes (27), points (7) and rebounds (10). His boards marked a team-high in Denver’s 119-114 loss to the Kings, which spoiled Nikola Jokic’s career-high 50-point night.
“I think my approach was play hard,” Hampton said. “… Go out and play hard. Go out and play defense. Do the little things to keep you on the court.”
That mindset was evident in Hampton’s frenetic hustle. Without Jamal Murray (knee), Gary Harris (adductor), Facu Campazzo (knee) or P.J. Dozier (hamstring), Saturday was Hampton’s best opportunity yet to show Nuggets coach Michael Malone how valuable he can be to him.
The answer, after considering Buddy Hield’s 1-of-11 shooting night? Extremely. Hampton’s effort on the court, be it running off 3-point shooters or curling around screens, was impossible to miss.
In one ridiculous display of athleticism, Hampton slipped early in the fourth quarter while trying to stick with Hield. But as Hield loaded to shoot from 3, Hampton recovered, lunged and got a piece of the attempt.
“He’s proven he’s trustworthy,” Malone said of the rookie who entered Saturday’s game with 47 career minutes. “… He’s athletic, he’s bouncy, he rebounded the ball at a very high level tonight. … Not afraid to mix it up. Aggressive. Defensively, he’s shown on multiple occasions now that he can go out there and really lock in and guard a player and help us on that end of the floor.
“Excited about the potential,” Malone said. “And every time, to his credit, he’s given an opportunity to play extended minutes, he takes advantage of it.”
As long as Denver’s backcourt depth remains wrecked by nagging injuries, Hampton is probably their best option as an athletic defensive stopper. Harris, Denver’s best perimeter defender, did go through a workout prior to Saturday’s game, including some running and basic ball-handling.
But given Hampton’s speed and length, he was also an adequate option against Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox, whom Hampton said he’s watched for years. Both from Texas, Hampton said there are aspects of Fox’s game he thinks he can incorporate into his.
For now, he’s more than happy to be a defensive specialist, which is exactly what the Nuggets need.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been considered like a defensive specialist or anything,” he said. “I feel like I’ve always been capable of it. I feel like there’s two positions in basketball. On the court and off the court. If coach needs me to play defense, that’s what I’m going to do.”
He said he’s had numerous conversations about defending with Harris and Dozier, who both roughly play the same position. But pinning him into a specific position would be a disservice. How many shooting guards lead their team in rebounding?
Hampton said he hadn’t reached double-digits on the glass since he was a high schooler in Texas, when he said he grabbed 16 or 17 one night.
“Probably about a year and a half ago,” he said.
That’s how quickly he’s progressed, from high school, to overseas, to first-round pick.
And as long as he continues to fly around the court like a bottle rocket, there’s no doubt Malone will find opportunities for him. In the Nuggets’ never-ending quest for defensive consistency, Hampton has already proven he can be an answer.
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