Hairston scored a career-high 23 points in 28 minutes during Saturday’s win in Tallahassee, avoiding a potential 0-3 ACC start that loomed over the UNC basketball program.
His performance didn’t come as a surprise; rather, it was a continuation of several weeks of inspired play. In his last five games, Hairston is averaging 14.2 points per game (good for second-best on the team) on 47.1 percent shooting (24-of-51), including a 35.5 percent effort from 3-point range (11-of-31). His 4.8 rebounds per game during that stretch rank third-best on the team, while his nine total offensive rebounds rank second and his six steals are tied for first.
Hairston’s minutes have also increased over the past five games, due to injuries to Reggie Bullock (concussion) and Leslie McDonald (knee). The Greensboro, N.C. native has averaged 24.8 minutes in his last five after averaging 17.8 minutes during his first 10 (DNP vs. Indiana; sprained knee).
That level of production, combined with the play of UNC’s starting backcourt during ACC play – Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige have combined to average 9.3 points on 29.4 percent shooting with a 16:11 assist-turnover ratio – have a portion of the fan base demanding Hairston play more minutes.
Roy Williams was asked during his weekly radio show on Monday if Hairston had earned his trust enough to move into the starting lineup, and his response elicited
an eruption of criticism across social media and message boards.
“Right now, I think he’s more valuable coming off the bench,” the 10th-year UNC head coach said.
Williams noted that things could change based on practice performance before adding: “P.J. has really given us a lift and when he comes into the game, the other team's defense has to change. And I like that part too."
InsideCarolina.com asked Hairston about his coach’s comments on Tuesday. While anyone would expect most, if not all, college basketball players to respond to such a question in a nonflammable manner, there was no hesitation in Hairston’s reply, no hint of an underlying thought that differed from his spoken word.
“Starting doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “I actually get a good look at what the other team is doing when I’m sitting on the bench. Knowing that I’m the first or second guy off the bench, it really doesn’t bother me.
“I’m just proud to be playing, for one. But coming off the bench and being a basketball player, being a smart basketball player, you have to watch what the other team is doing, how they’re guarding us, are they double-teaming the big man and things like that, so that when I check in I know what to do.”
There has been some discussion noting that Hairston’s point production has increased relative to his minutes going up. And while there is truth in that regard on the surface, the fact of the matter is that Hairston has been efficient in finding his points regardless of his playing time.
Hairston has played less than 20 minutes in seven games this season. In those contests, he averaged 0.7 points per minute. In eight games playing 20 or more minutes, he is averaging 0.57 points per minute.
Don’t discount, though, the importance of adapting to the flow of the game.
“I do like to get into a rhythm in a game,” Hairston said. “I feel like if I’m not in a rhythm, then it’s kind of hard for me – I won’t say it’s hard for me to find a shot, but it’s hard for me to get it going. I’ll do things defensively, but on the offensive end, it’s kind of hard for me to get it going. But if I’m in, I just try to find a rhythm and let the game come to me.”
One point of emphasis that cannot go overlooked, however, is Hairston’s play in his first – and only – start of the season. With Bullock sidelined against UNLV on Dec. 29, Hairston started on the wing and fueled one of UNC’s better defensive halves of the season as the Tar Heels built an early 15-point lead.
Hairston finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, four rebounds and a career-high four steals in a career-high 32 minutes.
“I will say I picked up the intensity a lot more when I had that role because I had to when Reggie was out,” Hairston said of his start. “He’s one of the best defenders on the team, so I wanted to pick up that role.”
Williams also praised his sophomore guard’s play against UNLV on Monday.
“He doesn't get enough credit for what he can do defensively,” Williams said. “And [Florida State] wasn't the greatest defensive game for him, but against UNLV he was the defensive player of the game and one of the leading scorers of the game - he was off the charts then."
Hairston attributes his improved defensive play to being quicker laterally, enabling him to get more deflections and rebounds. Offensively, it’s been about getting better with the ball in his hands.
“That’s my main thing from the summer, just trying to create things more off the dribble, trying to get to the basket and trying to make jump shots off the dribble,” Hairston said. “Just different things that will confuse the defense so that they don’t know if they should back up from me or pressure me because there are different things that I can do.”
Hairston has proven to be a valuable - if not essential - sixth man off the bench. Whether he cracks the starting lineup or not, however, will continue to be a talking point throughout the remainder of the season.
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