Hairston: Back In Blue

By: Bobby Karalla --- @BobbyKaralla

Thirty minutes after Legends head coach Eduardo Najera called an end to practice, P.J. Hairston was still on the floor with coaches and a few teammates. The group ran a couple different plays again and again, pausing in between as Najera occasionally gave Hairston a few words of advice.

Hairston was perhaps the most active player during the Legends’ two-hour practice, his first with the team. And the former North Carolina Tar Heel has plenty of excitement and energy to burn off. For the first time in nine months, he has a game to prepare for.

Credit: Gary Dineen

“It just feels good to be out here playing again. I haven’t played a game since April in the NCAA tournament last year,” Hairston said after finally walking off the floor. “It’s just one of the greatest feelings to be able to play ball again.”

Hairston spent two seasons playing under Roy Williams at North Carolina. The last time he suited up, his Tar Heels lost to Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks during March Madness. He led the team in scoring last season with 14.6 points per game, averaging 20 points during the ACC and NCAA tournaments. The Legends picked up the shooting guard off waivers on Wednesday, giving Hairston a chance to put a tumultuous seven months behind him. It’s finally time to play basketball again. He’ll make his D-League debut this Saturday at home against the Austin Toros..

“It’s probably the best feeling in the world to have teammates again,” he said. “Of course, I had my teammates back at UNC, but I was just practicing and sitting on the bench. I wasn’t playing. It just feels good to know that I’m playing Saturday and I’ll be on the court with other people, instead of just practicing where it doesn’t count.”

“I’m the type of person where I don’t really listen to the negative, if I know the true person I am,” he said.

Despite Hairston’s insistence that he can find positivity in dark places, certainly that has to make him feel bad, right?

“I laughed at it,” he continued. “The people that really know me know who I am. It was just some of the craziest things I’ve ever heard in my life, man. Honestly, it made me work harder. It made me want to show people that all they can say is ‘he’s a great basketball player.’”

The sweet-shooting 6’ 6” Hairston, who shot a tick under 40 percent from deep for UNC last season, is looking to follow in the footsteps of Glen Rice Jr., who spent last season with the eventual D-League champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers before being drafted into the NBA. Hairston said he does plan on declaring for the 2014 Draft. There’s little doubt that Hairston will find an NBA home in June. Some draft analysts have written Hairston might be selected at the tail end of the first round, perhaps even higher.

But he can’t dream of playing with his future teammates until he learns how to play with his current ones, and that means doing the little things right away: for example, diving after a loose ball during a four-on-four drill, which he did, and his new teammates erupted in applause.

“First, I want my teammates to trust me. I want to create a bond with my teammates,” Hairston said. “I don’t want to be the player to take all the shots, but I want to be the player they trust. If it’s crunch time, and I’m in the corner wide open, I want them to trust me – to throw me the ball. And it’s the same thing with me. I want to be able to trust them the same way.”

One of those teammates is Devin Ebanks, who’s third in the D-League in scoring and has developed his own game immensely this season. Hairston said competing against NBA-ready talent around the league – including even Ebanks in practice – will help prepare him for the next level. Ebanks, meanwhile, likes what he sees from Hairston.

“He’s doing pretty well so far,” Ebanks said. “It’s his first day of practice, so it’s good to see that he looks like he’s ready to play right now and step in. He should be a good addition for us this year.”

Credit: Gary Dineen

Through the end of only one practice, Hairston said he still isn’t in game shape. During the practices to come, and in Saturday’s game against Austin, he’ll have to work himself back up to his peak physical condition. However, Hairston is very obviously in terrific shape. At 6’ 6” and 220 pounds, he certainly has an NBA body, but the game speeds up once a player jumps from college to the D-League.

“When I got out here and started running up and down, I just started getting more comfortable with the rhythm of the game and how fast the game moves,” Hairston said. “The guys are way faster than in college, and a lot stronger… it’s just a different feel.”

As his first game in nine months draws nearer, one would imagine Hairston is feeling many things. First there are nerves, as scouts aplenty will be watching his every move. Then, there’s excitement – he’s playing against some of the best talent in the world. But the predominant feeling seems to be relief. Hairston finally has the chance to let the past be in the past. He can finally be a basketball player again.

“Even when everything was going on, I was the most humble person ever about it,” he said. “People would expect me to be depressed and down on myself, but I was still positive no matter what. Like I said, I know who I am better than anybody else. Just knowing that and still having confidence, I was fine. I still hung out with my friends. I was still a kid. I was 19, 20. I’m 21 now, and now that I’m here, it’s a man’s game. It’s time to be a man and not look at college anymore.

“At the end of the day, it is what it is. I’m here now,” he added. “I’m past all of that – I’m past these last seven months. I want to play ball now.”