Path to the Draft: PJ Hairston's NBA D-League Detour (Part II)

After a crushing end to his college career, Hairston found what he was looking for in Frisco, Texas.

he 21-year-old kid’s first day on the job began with an introduction to a group of men who already knew him.

Nobody on the Texas Legends -- from 35-year-old NBA journeyman Melvin Ely down to promising rookie Mickey McConnell -- needed PJ Hairston to shake their hand that day before shootaround to know who he was when he arrived in mid-January. They all knew he walked in with “first-round pick” practically stamped on his back, and they sympathized with his exile from the University of North Carolina for off-the-court troubles.

But that didn’t mean they were going to take it easy on Hairston, the youngest and immediately most talented player on the team. They smelled fresh blood. “Everybody in the D-League thinks he should be a starter,” says Ely. “So every practice was like a game for us.”

Much of Hairston’s initiation into professional basketball took place at Fieldhouse USA in Frisco, Texas, where a roster filled with NBA vets -- up to head coach and former Mav Eduardo Najera -- made sure to push the new kid. It was no coincidence that practices got longer and more heated after his arrival.

“We had exactly 10 guys, so for the most part you see the same person every day. Being a competitor, you want to kick that guy’s a-- that’s in front of you,” says Ely.

“Coach Najera thought he was being sneaky, didn’t think we knew what was going on, but he made sure that that boy was going hard, every day.”

It was all part of the process Hairston and the Legends set in motion when they first met, when Najera told Hairston he’d treat him like a man. Texas, lucky to have the highest waiver priority at the time, sought Hairston as a reclamation project and potential Mavs draft pick. Hairston sought Texas as a place to quietly start over.

The arrangement, says Legends president Malcolm Farmer, could be “a wave of the future.” The NBA D-League has long served as a sanctuary for players with personal problems, but not until Glen Rice Jr. last season did a touted prospect parlay minor-league success into a high NBA Draft selection (35th overall to the Washington Wizards).

“I’m trying to be just like you,” Hairston says he told Rice Jr., assigned to the Iowa Energy for 19 games this season, when they shared the court in March.

here was one thing Hairston’s Legends teammates didn’t know about him until their introduction. “From the pictures we saw,” says Ely, “he didn’t look that big.”

Read a scouting report on the 6-5, 230-pound shooting guard, and “NBA body” will typically be mentioned within the first few words. In reality, it’s more football body than basketball body, built during his middle school years as a quarterback, wide receiver and safety.

That body bulldozed through professional basketball players from the very first night he stepped foot inside Texas’ Dr. Pepper Arena. Hairston posted 22 points and six steals in a 28-minute debut on Jan. 18, just 29 days after UNC announced it would not seek to reinstate him. He had practiced only twice with the team at that point and barely knew a play.

He put up 40 in his second game six days later.

"PJ is a good kid who made some poor decisions, faced the consequences and paid the price without complaining, and became a better person for it. His success should be an inspiration to anyone who's not perfect."
- Donnie Nelson, Mavericks GM
Then his true pro basketball education began.

The Legends had another home game the next night, the first of 10 back-to-backs Hairston would play over the next three-plus months. What is a routine physical test to an NBA vet can be "Mission: Impossible" to the uninitiated.

“I tried to tell him, ‘I know this might get you, but work hard, push yourself through it and the back-to-back won’t be that bad,’” says Ely. “Man, he went out there and he couldn’t hit a bull on the a--.”

A classic case of dead legs limited Hairston to a 1-for-9 shooting night. When Ely saw the exhausted rook in the locker room afterward, he laughed. “Don’t worry about it -- it’s going to get better.”

On almost all fronts, it did. Hairston averaged 21.8 points, ranking seventh in the league over his 26-game stretch. His natural shooting touch made the transition to the NBA three-point line seamless; he made 2.8 treys per game and shot a solid 36% from beyond the arc.

After averaging just 14.3 points on 34% shooting in his first nine back-to-back games (compared to 25.3 on 50% in other games), he finally found a second wind to erupt for 26 and 33 points on consecutive days to end the season.

NBA Initiation: Hairston in Back-to-Backs
1+ Days Rest (16 g)25.350%38%3.16.6
0 Days Rest (10 g) 16.237%32%2.44.1

And he impressed Najera with his advanced understanding of the game: his ability to quickly pick up schemes and terminology, his anticipation and rotations on defense, the smart angles he took to the rim to counter closeouts. “Things that it normally takes years of experience and film [study] to learn,” the coach says.

Najera, a junkyard dog during his playing days, also grew to admire Hairston’s toughness -- “an old-school type of athlete,” he calls him. Hairston played through several injuries, according to Najera, missing just three games due to an ankle sprain. At one point, he even had to force Hairston to sit out with an Achilles injury. “He sucked it up,” says Najera. “He understood that he had to perform at a high level, and we knew that everybody was looking at him.”

Mavs GM and President of Basketball Operations Donnie Nelson attended most Legends home games -- a 25-minute drive from Dallas’ American Airlines Center -- alongside his basketball operations staff. Farmer estimates that seven or eight scouts from other NBA organizations also attended.

Hairston grew to realize they weren’t just watching him. In the dog-eat-dog world of the NBA D-League, he became the rest of the league’s litmus test, the anointed young stud being handed what the rest of the league was scrapping for.

“It wasn’t just me. Playing against them, you could see they were hungry, as well,” Hairston says. “Those guys play hard every night. They bring it 100 percent and you can tell they were professionals.

“That’s what got me ready.”

eady is the word many have used to describe how Hairston has looked and acted as he navigates the grind of an NBA Draft prospect. Ready to face the onslaught of questions about his character. Ready for the NBA style of play. Ready for the marathon that is the NBA season. Or, more specifically, more ready than his peers.

At the NBA Draft Combine in mid-May, Hairston said he could sense that he had a three-month head start on the competition. Everything from the three-point line to the media attention to the NBA ball -- “It feels great coming off my hand now; I’m just so used to using it,” he said -- already felt comfortable.

By all accounts, Hairston has spent the months since his rookie season ended making up the last bits of ground he lost with his college career. His performance at the Combine, where he impressed with a 37-inch vertical leap and polished, introspective interviews, solidified his position as a mid-to-late first-round pick on June 26.

That day will be historic for the NBA D-League, and Hairston has done his part to embrace the role of trail blazer in the footsteps of Rice Jr. In fact, Hairston said that the moment that made him feel most comfortable in the path he chose came during that March matchup with Rice Jr.’s Iowa Energy, when the current Washington Wizard offered some perspective.

“He just said, ‘It works,’” recalls Hairston. “You get everyone to believe in you again.”

At the very least, he’s stumbled upon a group of believers in Texas.

“PJ is a good kid who made some poor decisions, faced the consequences and paid the price without complaining, and became a better person for it,” says Nelson. “His success should be an inspiration to anyone who's not perfect.”

“He was humbled when he got here and he knew that he had to change that perception,” says Najera. “I really believe that he's learned his lesson.”

“He made a mistake, but I think he did the best thing for him,” echoes Ely. “I’m not saying that’s the road for everybody, but it worked out for him.”