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RJ Hampton healthy again and needed amid Heat injury issues: ‘I feel 100 percent’

One of the most intriguing developmental prospects on the Miami Heat’s roster has logged just two minutes of playing time this season. But he just recently became available again to play more minutes.

Guard RJ Hampton, a former first-round pick who signed a two-way contract with the Heat this past offseason, was cleared to return to game action late last week after missing 10 consecutive games with a sprained right knee. He sustained the injury during his first practice with the Heat’s G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, in mid-November and had been unavailable since.

“It’s been a long rehabilitation process,” said Hampton, who entered Monday night’s matchup against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center with one game appearance this season that lasted just 2:02. “But I feel like we did everything we could to get me back feeling 100 percent and I feel 100 percent.”

That’s good news because the Heat is in need of depth at the guard position, with Tyler Herro missing his 15th straight game on Monday against the Hornets because of a sprained right ankle and Dru Smith out for the rest of the season because of a knee. But the Heat will have starting point guard Kyle Lowry available on Monday despite being added to the injury report hours before tipoff due to back spasms.

As a result, Hampton traveled from Miami to Charlotte on Monday to rejoin the Heat for its matchup against the Hornets. Hampton was initially scheduled to fly to Detroit on Monday to join the Sioux Falls Skyforce for some time with the Heat’s G League affiliate before Lowry’s uncertain status changed those travel plans.

“Physically, conditioning-wise, all of that, he’s ready,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked Monday morning if Hampton is ready to play against the Hornets if needed. “He’s been able to go through two full-scale practices and then half a dozen more intense workouts and 3-on-threes, two-on-twos, all that. So physically he’s ready. And we’ll just have to wait and see whether we need to go that deep in the rotation tonight.”

Hampton’s upside as an athletic 22-year-old guard, who’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds, and was selected with the 24th overall pick in the 2020 draft caught the Heat’s attention when he became available this past summer.

Hampton has played for three different teams over his first three NBA seasons. He appeared in 162 career NBA games (18 starts) between the Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons, averaging 7.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 18.8 minutes per game while shooting 41 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from three-point range before becoming available for the Heat to sign when the Pistons waived him in June.

Hampton decided to accept a two-way contract opportunity with the Heat — something that is rare for first-round picks to do this early in their career — because he was looking for a team that would take the time to help further develop his game. And the Heat didn’t hesitate to add Hampton to its well-regarded player development program.

“Spo has just reiterated to me that he sees the talent level in me and he just wants to max that out,” Hampton said, “whether that’s to be a point guard or whether that’s to be a shooting guard. I’ve been working with the shooting coach, Rob [Fodor], pretty much every day since I’ve been here perfecting my shot and getting that down pat, whether that’s off the dribble or catch-and-shoots. I think with whatever the team needs, I feel like I’m going to be 100 percent ready to do that.”

What’s different about the Heat’s player development program compared to others Hampton has been a part of in the first few seasons of his NBA career?

“I think it’s just very detailed, just the time that everybody takes,” Hampton said. “A lot of places, you have maybe a player development guy. They’re not maybe in tune with what the coach is wanting. They might not connect. But here, it’s very detailed. Spo is very detailed with the staff about what he wants to be done with certain players. You see that because of all the guys in the Heat’s history who have gone on to do major things.

“It’s just a credit to the top. It all starts at the top. If it doesn’t start at the top, that’s when you don’t see the developmental stages in other programs, other organizations. That’s just a credit to Pat [Riley], Spo and their attention to detail with that.”

Wherever it comes, whether it’s in the NBA or G League, Hampton just wants to play because he just wants to get better.

Two-way contracts allow for players to be on their NBA team’s active list for as many as 50 regular-season games, with other game action having to come in the G League.

“I’m open to playing anywhere,” he said. “As long as the orange ball bounces, I’m good. Whether that’s Japan, New Zealand or here in Miami. I’m happy to just play wherever and develop, and hopefully bring a lot to this team.”

JOVIC SENT TO G LEAGUE

While Hampton rejoined the Heat in Charlotte, Heat second-year forward Nikola Jovic traveled to Detroit on Monday to join the Skyforce for his second G League assignment of the season.

During Jovic’s first G League stint of the season in November, he averaged 16.7 points, five rebounds and four assists per game while shooting 42.5 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from three-point range in three games.

With the Heat, the 20-year-old Jovic has remained out of the rotation this season. The 2022 first-round pick out of Serbia has played in just four of the Heat’s first 23 games.

The plan is for Jovic’s second G League stint of the season to last two games, with the Skyforce taking on the Motor City Cruise on Tuesday in Detroit and Windy City Bulls on Friday in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Jovic will then rejoin the Heat in Miami this weekend.

“It won’t be linear,” Spoelstra said last week regarding Jovic’s development. “That’s the thing about a young player who’s 20. We feel very encouraged by his progress, but we have to quiet all the noise out there when everybody wants it to be a microwave impact right now. We just want to stay disciplined to the plan.”