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P.J. Hairston saga another blow to UNC athletics

A P.J. Hairston loss for part of next season could significantly impact North Carolina . (Ed Zurga/Getty Images) A P.J. Hairston loss for part of next season could significantly impact North Carolina . (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Early reports of P.J. Hairston’s arrest were strikingly complex. First, the basics: North Carolina’s 6-foot-5 small forward and two other passengers were charged with possession of marijuana, and Hairston was also cited for driving without a license. One day later, it was learned that a 9mm firearm with nine rounds of ammunition was found outside the rented GMC Yukon Hairston was driving at the time.

Those were the facts. The subsequent questions were more compelling. Why was Hairston driving a rental car? Who provided the money to rent it? What was Hairston doing driving without a legal license? Did the loaded gun found outside the vehicle at the traffic stop belong to Hairston or one of the passengers?

Another wrinkle in the Hairston saga emerged thanks to Friday’s report from Big Lead Sports, which detailed the possibility of an impermissible relationship between Hairston and NBA agent Rodney Blackstock. You may have heard Blackstock’s name before: He is the runner allegedly involved with former Kansas star and likely top-five NBA draft pick Ben McLemore. McLemore recently acknowledged the existence of his own relationship with Blackstock.

Any contact between Hairston and Blackstock -– who is from Greensboro and has been involved with UNC’s star guard in some capacity in the past -- was almost guaranteed to catch the NCAA’s eye, and sure enough, according to multiple reports, North Carolina officials have already been made aware about Blackstock’s recent activity. The natural question is whether Blackstock and Hairston’s rental car and drug arrest are related in anyway, and if so, what all of this could mean for Hairston’s bright future with the Tar Heels.

In the beginning, it was a drug charge, driving with a suspended license, and a loaded firearm found outside an obscurely obtained rental car. Now the NCAA is involved, and the possibility Blackstock is involved in this entire mess means the range of punishments Hairston could face this offseason could come not only from actual law enforcement, but the NCAA, as well.

In an interview with USA Today earlier this week, Roy Williams said he is “waiting until all the facts come in” before deciding how to discipline Hairston, although Williams did mention he has “some ideas, but right now those ideas are staying in my mind.” It may be a while before all the salient details trickle out, but it's unlikely Hairston will get out of this situation unscathed. Whether UNC fans are willing to acknowledge it or not, there will be repercussions for Hairston’s actions, and they could (re: could) very well influence his ability to contribute to the Tar Heels this season.

On the court, losing Hairston for part or all of the upcoming season would undermine much of the positive momentum generated from last season’s mid-February lineup change that slid Hairston into a starting role in a four-guard lineup. With Hairston at the four, UNC spaced the floor to great effect, opened up room for struggling big man James Michael McAdoo to operate more efficiently, allowed point guard Marcus Paige to display the full breadth of his distributive potential and, most importantly, turned Hairston into a bona-fide scorer.

Starting with a Feb. 16 win over Virginia, the Tar Heels ripped off six consecutive ACC victories, erased any midseason NCAA tournament uncertainty, and gave one-seed Kansas more than it ever wanted in a Coach Roy-headlined Round-of-32 defeat. With Hairston at his best, UNC, became a dangerous team that finished its season on a hot streak promising huge upside for 2013-14.

His return this season was arguably the biggest reason many people envision the Tar Heels challenging the likes of Duke and Syracuse at the top of the retooled ACC. Dealing with his absence for any stretch of games –- even in the nonconference, when UNC faces matchups with reigning national champion Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky –- could disrupt the chemistry established during last season’s stretch run. Williams is adaptable enough to improvise, of course –- one of incoming freshmen big men Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks could pair with McAdoo in a more conventional, two-post starting lineup.

It’s best to save prospective lineup analysis until Hairston’s situation is resolved. Who knows, maybe the nefarious cloud of smoke surrounding Hairston’s offseason will clear up with no severe punishments waiting on the other side. But either way it’s just more bad press in an already regrettable past few months for North Carolina athletics. UNC needed to turn a blank page, to leave behind the bad publicity of a lingering student-athlete academics scandal. P.J. Hairston isn’t helping matters.

Any measure of outcomes is conceivable. Right now, the evidence is too scattered, the dots too loosely connected, to make any sweeping assessments about Hairston’s upcoming season, or about the merits of his decision to bypass the NBA draft and return for his sophomore year. But we can say this: The stigma of a player scandal is certainly a blow that North Carolina could have done without.

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