P.J. Hairston has not taken the traditional road to the NBA Draft’s first round, where he is expected to be selected next month in Brooklyn, NY.
He didn’t play a single game at the University of North Carolina this season, nor did he notch a single minute overseas. Rather, Hairston followed up a falling out with UNC by catching on with the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends, and what happened next was enough to put the D-League in national headlines almost immediately.
That’s because in Hairston’s first handful of games with the Legends he scored 40 or more points twice, proving his prowess as a scorer against defenders that are more accomplished than the ones he would have faced at Chapel Hill.
“Playing against [D-League players] really prepares you for that next level,” Hairston said at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “You play against other pro guys, guys that have played in the NBA that were sent down to play in the D-League a few games. For example, I had Bernard James, Jae Crowder and Shane Larkin come down and play on our team. Just playing with those guys, you can tell how their mentality was and how they have such a pro outlook on things.”
In other words, despite the stigma that D-League defenders are no good and points scored in D-League games don’t matter, Hairston’s belief is that the defenders there are even better than in the NCAA, meaning his scoring binge was even more special in the NBDL than if he had done something similar in the NCAA.
That, he believes, is what will make him the first player to be selected in the first round coming out of the D-League.
“It’s professional,” Hairston said. “It’s not college. You don’t have anyone holding your hand telling you not to shoot this or not to shoot that. It’s basically up to you.
“In Texas I put the ball on the floor a lot more. I became a better finisher – not perfect – but a better finisher. One of the other things I’m also working on is being able to take the ball through the court, coast-to-coast and finish. Things that I didn’t do a lot at North Carolina that I did in Texas is where I really showed my improvement and became a versatile player.”
Of course, if Hairston had had his druthers, he would have accepted a lesser punishment from the university for his questionable off-court associations and returned to the Tar Heels later in the season. In fact, he didn’t enter that season even considering the fact that he’d end it in a D-League uniform.
“It was a real big shock. I was expecting, ‘Hey, P.J. in 8-10 games you’ll be back,’” Hairston admitted. “When I was told I couldn’t play, it was probably the worst thing I could hear in my life.”
He’s not the kind of player to sit and sulk, however. Almost immediately after getting the news that UNC would not seek his reinstatement, Hairston was already game-planning how to finish out his year in preparation of this summer’s draft.
“I couldn’t sit around and sob and cry and be mad at myself,” Hairston said. “I had to figure out what my next step was, and transferring was an option, but I couldn’t do that. Overseas was an option, but I couldn’t take my online courses and couldn’t take my classes to graduate on time. The D-League was the last option where I could still take my online courses and still be able to graduate on time.”
So that’s what he did, and he did it pretty well.
“I took a communications class this spring and I actually got a B+ in the class,” he said. “That’s my main thing, I really want to graduate and have a degree. Like they say, the ball will stop bouncing one day and I always wanted to have something to fall back on where I could have a good job.”
It looks like he’s about to have a pretty good job as it is, though where he ends up in this upcoming draft is still anybody’s guess. Glen Rice Jr. took a similar path last season and ended up getting chosen by the Washington Wizards with 35th overall pick after his stint with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Hairston would much rather enjoy the guaranteed money that a first-round pick provides, but he’ll have to wait several more weeks to see whether he ends up there or not.
In the meantime, he can do nothing but count his blessings that things worked out okay in the end. Leaving North Carolina wasn’t his plan, but if the end result is getting to wear some team’s snapback while shaking NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand this summer, very little else is likely to matter.