Dontay Hampton's rehabilitation from reconstructive knee surgery is not 100 percent complete.
But he's been cleared to play.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior guard has been smiling almost every minute since learning his first game of the basketball season will be Thursday at The Citadel.
"It feels fresh and I'm ready to get out there with my teammates and start playing," Hampton said Monday. "I feel very good. I'm not going to do anything risky, but I'm going to play freely."
Hampton, who prepped locally at Arts & Sciences, began his college career as a UTC walk-on instead of accepting a scholarship offer from other schools, so he could remain close to his brother Malik and the rest of their family. Hampton has played a fatherly role to the current 10th-grader since Malik's father died.
Hampton's goals upon enrolling at UTC were to earn a degree and stay involved with basketball.
More than four years later, including a redshirt season in 2008-09 when he got a Southern Conference tournament championship ring, he likely will have opportunities to play professionally overseas.
Just playing again this season is a blessing for him. And it is expected to be a blessing for the Mocs, who are 6-9 overall and 1-1 in the SoCon.
If Hampton were playing, freshman point guard Farad Cobb would have been adjusting to the college game at a slower pace, but Cobb has scored 30 points the last two games. Sophomore guard Ronrico White would have played shooting guard, leaving freshman Gee McGhee (10.3 ppg) on the bench more.
Coach John Shulman said Hampton will have to earn playing time. The coach will stick with his recent starting lineup and let the senior practice his way into the rotation either at point guard or shooting guard.
"You take the good with the bad, and there has been a lot of bad, but you take the good with it," Shulman said. "Farad has grown from a young kid who I don't know really wanted to be out there in the moment to now leading our basketball team. Now you're got another guy who can lead our team. Farad can."
Hampton can be one of Shulman's best defenders, shooters and leaders. He averaged 7.1 points and 16.6 minutes per game as a junior.
"He's got to go hard," Shulman said before Monday's practice. "But we get back what I thought coming into the year was our best player. He's our leader, he's our captain and he is the only one of our players with any great experience in winning. We've really missed him."
By taking a redshirt year as a freshman, Hampton had little option but to target a return this season. There is little chance the NCAA would have granted a sixth year of eligibility because the first redshirt season was not due to injury.
Following the surgery in July, he began rehabilitation as soon as possible. He started on crutches. His first simple drills included flexing his right leg straight out while sitting down. He joined the team for pre-practice laps around the court in McKenzie Arena for the first time on Oct. 18.
He started shooting and dribbling before his knee could support other basketball activities. The dribbling began from a chair. The shooting began at close range.
"We didn't do anything crazy. We just started with layups," said UTC assistant coach and former point guard Casey Long. "The biggest thing was confidence getting back on that knee. Before doing anything I had him jumping off that knee for layups. That was the bare minimum."
In practice, all Hampton could do for weeks was watch. Shulman scolded him one day for not speaking up and not teaching. As strength in his knee developed, he could skip rope or ride a stationary bike, walk the stairs of McKenzie Arena or rebound for teammates in shooting drills.
Watching the games and UTC sputter out to a 2-8 start hurt more than the rehab. Seeing an 81-55 spanking by Davidson in McKenzie Arena was particularly painful in his chest instead of his knee.
"That game, I about died," Hampton said. "It was killing me because I couldn't help my team."
But he can help them for the rest of the conference season. UTC has at least 17 games remaining against SoCon competition.
"It feels good because the team is rolling and things are starting to click," said Hampton, who targeted this week's road trip to Charleston because UTC lost two-point games to both teams last year. "I'm going to go with the flow, whether it's five minutes. I'm in shape and ready to go."