Killian Hayes was the pick. He was supposed to be the player that fell in the draft and then went from unheralded, not-well-known international prospect to the answer, finally, to the point guard black hole the Detroit Pistons have dealt with since trading Chauncey Billups more than a decade ago.
Alas, that is not how things transpired in this mock draft, and the Detroit Bad Boys war room was left scrambling for another answer to the question — who will finally save the Pistons? Figuring out the best response was a battle between those who thought there were no players with star-level upside and bank on known skill and production, and those who wanted to gamble on inherent skills, athleticism and potential.
In the end, we are taking a big swing on the potential of R.J. Hampton, an athletic combo guard who could, if things break right, blossom into a lead ball handler and playmaker the Pistons are desperate for.
He has his flaws, but he also has a dynamic game that few others in the draft possess, and he combines that with a high enough basketball IQ, size and athleticism to succeed at the next level.
Love how low RJ Hampton gets after the mini-screen setup (through legs cross) and hard L-R cross — just an awesome slippery, low to ground move. Initial burst off cross wasn't anywhere near as explosive as he's capable of.— Spencer (@SKPearlman) March 2, 2020
Had an extra dribble & finish probably, but nice pass. pic.twitter.com/BbputFEa45
When thinking about why R.J. Hampton makes sense for Detroit, you need to think about the kinds of players Troy Weaver and the OKC regime targeted for the Thunder. Draft athleticism and upside, and worry less about efficiency and shot-making. Those things can be taught in a player development program — but you can’t teach Hampton’s size or speed.
Another point in Hampton’s favor is that he knows his biggest flaw as a player — his shooting, and he is working to address it. Sam Vecenie had a great writeup on Hampton in The Athletic breaking down his shot and delving into his work with former sharp shooter Mike MIller and trainer Tyler Relph to completely transform his shot.
In thinking about another player the Pistons drafted with everything you’d look for, except a horrendously broken shot, in Stanley Johnson, Hampton’s humility in acknowledging the need for change is already a huge spot in his favor. Johnson was always stubborn. He didn’t think he needed to change, and if he struggled at all he would always revert back to what felt most comfortable, and he’s found himself on the fringes of NBA rosters as a result.
As Vecenie writes:
But substantively, in his pre-draft training, Hampton has transformed basically the entire look of his jumper in a way that looks much more tenable toward long-term success.
“The biggest thing for him is that he’s bought in this early,” Miller told The Athletic. “If you’re in the discussions to be a lottery pick in the NBA, you’ve really got to humble yourself to be willing to break down your jumper and change it. I’ve worked with a ton of guards the last seven, eight years of my career, where coaches and GMs ask me, ‘Hey, can you work with this kid?’ And that’s typically in Year Three or Four in the league, after they’ve had some struggles. If you’re willing to buy in now, and repeat it now, and don’t get bored with it, you’re going to see some significant jumps in percentages.”
Let’s take a closer look.
You can see here the mechanics are all out of wack. His base is narrow and unbalanced and it’s no wonder his shot drifts off line badly.
But look at video of his new form, which he has been working on since the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s smooth, repeatable and successful.
RJ Hampton working with jumpshot whisperer Mike Miller. Release already significantly cleaner than it was during the season in the NBL. pic.twitter.com/UUX7YhnBCB— Matt Pennie (@matt_pennie) September 22, 2020
While he might not be the next Russell Westbrook that Weaver can claim as a developmental success story, he could be a better version of Zach LaVine - an athletic scorer with a higher basketball IQ and more natural skills as a facilitator.
A selection of Hampton would be a vote for the player development program in Detroit. If Weaver sees a player with kind of top-tier scoring instincts to be a lead guard in the NBA, but with inconsistent results and poor defensive awareness, and selects Hampton anyway, then he’s trusting that in year two, year three, we’ll see what Hampton can truly become.
Have the Pistons earned that type of trust? The new regime has done pretty well in developing its players, but the jury is very much still out. Sekou Doumbouya is the only player with elite potential, and he’s still younger than most of the players that are about to be drafted.
Hampton is a long-term play — a play a rebuilding team should be making. He’s not going to be a difference maker in his rookie year, but it should never be about what happens during his rookie year. It’s about finding players who can lead your team deep into the playoffs four to five years from now.
Hampton could play on or off the ball, and by the primary initiator of the offense on the perimeter. He has the ability to use his quick first step to get into the teeth of the defense and shown he has the vision to find the cutter or the open man on the perimeter.
He’s not LaMelo Ball with the rock, but he’s enough to make the offense go and possesses the kind of gravity you need to start to build an effective offense around. Imagine how much more success Luke Kennard will have if there is a reliable penetrator on the roster who can create open catch-and-shoot looks for him. And with Kennard’s secondary ball-handling ability, the fact that Hampton isn’t a natural point guard, at least not yet, doesn’t mean the offense can’t find success on the floor.
With ALL OF THAT said, I will admit that with the way the draft shook out and Hayes being off the board, it was a stark reminder how this might be the year to trade down in the draft. If the Pistons don’t trust Tyrese Haliburton to be a starting point guard in the NBA and the Boston Celtics are hot on his heels, take Boston’s three picks, slide down to No. 14 and take the best player available.
Hampton might still be there, and if he’s gone you’re still likely to be able to grab an Aaron Nesmith, Kira Lewis Jr. Cole Anthony, Aleksej Pokusevski or some prospect who has nearly as much upside. You can then use those two extra picks to fill out your roster with young talent and focus on player development.
Or, you know, trade up for LaMelo Ball and let’s go crazy.