It’s been a wild year for PJ Hairston. Fresh off of UNC’s solid ’12-13 campaign, he turned down the millions the NBA had to offer to return to UNC. Then, this happened. And this. By the time it was all said and done, he received an indefinite suspension that the university wouldn’t appeal. Too late to head to the League since the NBA doesn’t have a supplemental draft, he took his talents to the D-League with the Texas Legends. It was a humbling experience for Hairston, who made around $20,000 for the season, yet also frustrating when contemplating the fact that he would have been a 20-year-old millionaire had he just left Carolina after the season.
“Stuff happens, I made mistakes, and I had to go down a different path,” said Hairston of the rough last year that he’s went through. “At the same time, I regret my mistakes and I’m just glad to be in the position that I”m in today.”
Once in Frisco with the Legends, Hairston shined. There was an initial adjustment period, and then absolute dominance in the D-League. PJ finished up the season averaging 22 points per game, good for sixth in the league. He shot the ball from the NBA three-point line with ease and was a killer coming off of pin-downs. And while he learned from future NBA coaches, what he gained the most didn’t have anything to do with his game itself.
“I feel like it was a learning process for me. Getting to the D-League was just another step in life that I had to take to be successful,” PJ admitted. “It was a learning experience for me playing with guys who had played in the NBA and wanted to get to the NBA. The competition was a lot better there because everyone was playing for something.”
The next step in the process took the Greensboro native to Chicago, where he prepped for the NBA Draft with Ernie Ford. In the hour-long workout that we checked out at Quest Multisport (the old ATTACK Athletics), we were able to see first hand the strides that PJ has made, starting with his physique.
Weighing at 228 pounds, the swingman is at the same playing weight he was during his junior year of high school. His body looks much more toned and definitely helped him move better on the hardwood. More so than actual on-court work, getting PJ’s body right is the main priority.
“The biggest improvement with PJ has definitely been his conditioning,” Ford boasted after the workout. “He’s always had a motor, but his conditioning has never been top notch. Right now, I think he’s at 93 to 95 percent of his peak.”
As far as on-court work was concerned, we were able to see some of the gains he made in his offensive game throughout the past season. PJ’s range was simply effortless, easily shooting the ball from 25 feet without taking a long time to load up or gather himself. He shot it on the move and off of the dribble, too. While there may be questions surrounding PJ, one is definitely not going to be about how he shoots that pill.
“My ball-handling and mid-range game. Also, finishing with contact,” Hairston fired back when asked what he is looking to focus over the next few weeks. “My ball-handling has improved a lot since I’ve been working out with him and my mid-range game has definitely gotten a lot better. I just want to be a lot more productive.”
As if his level of scoring wasn’t productive enough in the D-League, he will have a few more things to add to his arsenal. PJ showed off a beautiful high-arcing floater that he put up over a 7-6ish dummy. He was working to keep his hips lower and looked like he was making strides in the right direction with his game off of the bounce. Continued improvement in these two areas will only bolster his Draft stock farther than it even has with his play in the D-League.
With the Draft less than three weeks away, PJ has planted himself firmly in the first round. If he is able to get his UNC experience behind him in the eyes of NBA executives, he could go even higher. Receiving interest from teams as high as the late lotto, it’s going to be a team’s opinion of his growth off of the court, rather than on it that will get him drafted.
“I think that it helped him learn how to be a pro,” Ford said of PJ’s growth in the past year. “I think that in the D-League, sometimes he didn’t bring it every night. I think he was still concentrating on North Carolina, but he’s let it go now. He’s really tuned in and focused.”