Why Heat has kept open roster spots. And here’s the deal with R.J. Hampton addition


The list of remaining unsigned NBA free agents is filled with names of players who have accomplished something substantive in the league, or at least put up numbers — George Hill, Kendrick Nunn, John Wall, Derrick Favors, T.J. Warren, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic, Terrence Ross, Austin Rivers and Will Barton, among others.

So why hasn’t the Heat been pursuing any of them with its two open roster spots?

This isn’t a byproduct of any concerns about the luxury tax or a second apron or finances.

Instead, it’s about creating an opportunity to try to find the Heat’s next diamond in the rough.

The Heat believes the only way it will know if any of the eight young players without guaranteed contracts can play is to give them an opportunity to compete in training camp and preseason, without another veteran cluttering the equation.

Three, four or five of those eight could emerge with jobs —- three with two-way contracts (Dru Smith, R.J. Hampton and Jamal Cain are looking to hold onto those two-way deals or earn standard deals) and potentially one or, less likely, two other players emerging from preaseason with standard deals.

The Heat has 13 players signed to standard contracts and must be at 14 by opening night, when Detroit visits Kaseya Center on Oct. 25.

While the Heat hasn’t ruled out signing a veteran, it wants to give the young players every chance to earn those jobs.

Besides the three players on two-way deals, the five others competing with training camp Exhibit 10 deals are forwards Cole Swider, Justin Champagnie, Drew Peterson, Cheick Diallo and guard Alondes Williams.

Of those eight, the 22-year-old Hampton has the most NBA experience, having appeared in 162 NBA games and started 18 through three seasons with Denver, Orlando and Detroit.

The Heat is technically his fifth team in four seasons; he was drafted 24th overall by Milwaukee in 2020 — after he spent a season in New Zealand.

He was waived by two of the NBA’s worst teams this year — by Orlando in February and Detroit in June. But the Heat is intrigued by his athleticism, ability to play both guard spots and a skill set that suggests he can defend.

Hampton was so intent on joining the Heat that he started working out with Heat players at Kaseya Center, under the watchful eye of Heat staffers, without any promise that he would be invited to training camp.

“It was Miami or nothing for me,” he said Monday on the eve of the start of training camp at Florida Atlantic University. “I’ve been down here, off and on, since the beginning of August.

“It was almost like [the Heat saying], ‘come here, do what you do, work hard. We’ll make decisions and talk to your agency and see what happens.’”

So why Miami?

“There have been guys that have taken two ways and produced at a high level and you see where they’re at,” Hampton said, with Caleb Martin the most recent example.

“I’ve never been to the playoffs. I always watched the Heat in the playoffs. I saw Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb take their unconventional routes to where they are now. That definitely played a part in wanting to be here.”

And the Heat “staple [is] defense,” Hampton said. “That’s what I pride myself on. That’s what I look to show and what I’ll be doing.”

The metrics don’t reflect that defensive bent. Players defended by Hampton shot 50 percent last season; those players shot just under 47 percent against everybody else. He has averaged 0.6 steals per game.

“Spo [Heat coach Erik Spolestra] is big on defense; that’s what I’m looking to bring to this team,” he said. “I’m looking to change the game, change the pace of the games.”

The Heat has him playing both guard spots; at 6-4, Hampton said he has spent about 40 percent of his NBA minutes at point guard and about 60 percent at shooting guard.

“I’m comfortable at both, working at both,” he said. “You never know what this team and Spo and the coaching staff have for you.”

Hampton’s career shooting numbers are pedestrian: 41 percent from the field and 34.2 percent on threes (132 for 386). The career assist-to-turnover numbers aren’t great (299 to 182).

Last season, he averaged just less than 15 points per 36 minutes in the 26 appearances for Orlando and 21 games for Detroit, and he put up decent numbers (11.2 points, 5.0 rebounds) during the sample size when he played the most in his career (25.2 minutes per game in 26 games for Orlando in 2020-21.

“Offensively, finding where I’m good at, whether it’s point guard.. shooting guard.. I’m trying to figure out that niche for me,” he said.

He said the Heat system accentuates his talents because “everyone can handle the ball, everyone can initiate the offense. I’m a fast-paced player, can get out in transition without the ball, with the ball.”

He doesn’t come to the Heat with the shooting prowess that Vincent displayed in the G League, but he sees a possibility for that type of role — as a combo guard — if this time here goes well. If he stays on a two-way contract, he’s eligible to appear in 50 NBA games. Players on two-way contracts can be converted to standard deals at any time.

“Gabe had a great role,” Hampton said. “... That’s something I’m looking forward to bringing to the team as well.”

The talent is certainly there: He was a highly recruited five-star prospect coming out of Little Elm, Texas, and was initially projected as a top-five NBA Draft pick in 2020, months before he decided to bypass college and instead play professionally for a year with the New Zealand Breakers.

The Heat, with its renowned development program, hopes to harness that talent.

“Miami is the first place I’ve been where the player development has been very conscious about wanting to work with me on certain things and what they think that can take my game to the next level,” he said.

“I was in Denver early and they did that. When I got to Orlando, it was kind of like, ‘we have injuries and go out and play.’ With Detroit, the same thing…This is the spot they have really taken me under their wings.”

Here’s my Tuesday piece on sharpshooter Cole Swider, who is competing for a job in training camp, and how Duncan Robinson is helping him.