Posted Feb 4, 2014 11:11 AM
RENO, Nev. -- A few hundred people were in the stands last Wednesday night to watch the Texas Legends play the Reno Bighorns in a professional basketball game that was destined to generate three paragraphs of coverage on the website of the local paper. Meanwhile, North Carolina was at Georgia Tech for a matchup that would have been beamed across the ESPN galaxy if not for bad weather that blocked the production crew from getting to the arena.
P.J. Hairston wouldn't have been able to watch the college game anyway. He had to leave his hotel room to come to the near-empty gym here.
When he did try to watch college games? The first attempt, UNC at Virginia, was figuratively swatted into the seventh row by his Legends teammates. Same for the second, Kentucky at LSU, eight nights later. His new teammates were delivering a message: We don't watch that around here.
"It's time for you to start focusing on big-boy stuff," Hairston remembers one saying.
Hairston's time at North Carolina sure feels a lot longer than two months ago. He's now traveling the NBA Development League with the Legends on a path to the NBA Draft he never could have imagined. He can go back to Chapel Hill, and plans to during All-Star weekend. The schedule broke right to get home to nearby Greensboro for his mom's birthday Feb. 14. But he can't go back.
Hairston was suspended by the NCAA before the season during a lengthy investigation into allegations of receiving impermissible benefits and an association with a local felon, beyond previous legal issues, before school officials announced in December they would not seek reinstatement. The evidence against him, it was decided, was too strong.
Hairston considered staying in school in hopes of convincing the Tar Heels to apply for reinstatement again next season and briefly thought about transferring. But entering the 2014 Draft was the plan all along, even with a smooth junior campaign. Staying in college, he was told, would have meant sitting out until December 2014, and that wasn't going to happen. So, big-boy stuff.
Much the same way Glen Rice Jr. chose the D-League route to stay in front of NBA executives after being kicked off the team at Georgia Tech (eventually going from Rio Grande Valley to the Washington Wizards with the 35th pick last June), Hairston signed with the Legends on Jan. 14. Just to make sure everyone noticed, he scored 22 points in 28 minutes in the debut for the Mavericks affiliate based in suburban Dallas and 40 in 38 minutes the next game. This would pass for staying in front of NBA executives.
Wednesday at the Reno Events Center, the talented, smooth perimeter threat connected on five of his 10 3-point attempts but was not content to hang out beyond the arc. Displaying a physical presence he showed off at North Carolina (he is 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, a great size for a shooting guard), Hairston went aggressively at the basket and finished strong, often absorbing contact -- 16 of 16 from the line -- en route to 45 points in 38 minutes.
That inside-outside game he displayed in college made him a candidate for late in the first round in June. The impressive start with the Legends has kept him there, even amid concerns about his ball-handling and mid-range game. Hairston said he has worked hard on both while serving the suspension. His work has been noticed.
"It shows that I became a professional," he said. "I showed that I could put stuff behind me and keep moving forward, like I've done now. The past is the past for a reason. God puts you through certain things, but if you make it through it, it's for a reason. He puts you through those bumpy roads for a reason."
Unlike most every player in the D-League, Hairston is not eligible to be called up by an NBA team. He can't sign with one as a free agent. And the Legends' partnership with the Mavericks does not give Dallas any inside track to adding him in the future. (Though it could easily be argued that the Mavs may now have some insights into his personality and work ethic.)
He can only play in the minors or overseas until summer league, soon after the June 26 Draft.
In the meantime, while taking a North Carolina online course to continue working toward a Communications degree, there are constant reminders of what is still to come. Several teammates, including veterans Melvin Ely and Devin Ebanks, have NBA experience. Another, Ricky Ledo, is a 2013 second-round pick worth tracking. Legends coach Eduardo Najera played 12 seasons with the Mavericks, Warriors, Nuggets, Nets and Bobcats. The franchise is based about 30 miles from Dallas. Road games against the D-Fenders are at the Lakers' practice facility.
"So far, he's obviously a great talent," Najera said. "He's got a lot of skills. He can definitely shoot the ball. The biggest surprise is how hard he plays. I think that [North Carolina] coach [Roy] Williams did a good job with the intangibles. He's playing defense, he's diving on the floor, he's getting a lot of deflections, he's got great hands. Offensively, he's going to be great. I think his defense is going to dictate how he does in the Draft. So far, I've been impressed.
"Obviously, everybody read everything that he's done off the basketball court and he's a question mark. But the reality is, the kid is not somebody based on what they say or what you read. Once he got here, his attitude, his approach to the game has been unbelievable. Off the basketball court, he's been team-oriented, he's been a great kid. I really believe that he just made a mistake. Now he's just trying to make it up. It cost him his career at a great university, but I think that he understands that's in the past, and now he's applying his mind, his body, to what he does best, which is basketball. He's done a great job."
It's a start. It's moving on.
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