Stuck between NCAA and NBA, P.J. Hairston thriving in D-League
P.J. Hairston remembers the tears, the emotion he couldn't control. Sitting in North Carolina coach Roy Williams office last December, Hairston struggled to come to grips with what Williams was telling him: After suspending Hairston for the first ten games of the season while investigating alleged NCAA violations, the school would not seek his reinstatement. A season that was supposed to launch Hairston into the upper echelon of college players was over before it started.
"I cried," Hairston told SI.com. "I didn't know what else to do. They took my college career from me. I felt like that was the end for me."op
As it turns out, it wasn't. Hairston's amateur career was over, thanks to his decision to accept improper benefits, specifically rental cars linked to convicted felon and local party promoter Haydn "Fats" Thomas. But a 6-foot-6, 230-pound guard with a sweet three-point stroke had options. Europe, for starters. Playing overseas was the most lucrative option. But Hairston was determined to take online courses at UNC, and felt playing in Europe would make that difficult.
That left the NBADL. The D-League has been a sanctuary for wayward college stars before. After being dismissed from Georgia Tech in 2012, Glen Rice Jr. elected to spend the 2012-2013 season in the D-League. A successful stint with Rio Grande -- which included averaging 25 points and 9.5 rebounds in the playoffs -- resulted in Rice being drafted 35th overall last June.
"The D-League," Hairston said, "just seemed like the best choice."
Hairston entered his name into the D-League's pool of eligible players in January, and was quickly snapped up by the Texas Legends. With the Legends, Hairston has been a prolific scorer. He scored 22 points in his debut against Austin then scored 40 in his next game. A few days later, he dropped 45 on Reno. On the season, he's averaging 21.2 points and has eclipsed 30 points four times. He has connected on 36.4 percent of his three-point shots and is shooting 88.2 percent from the free throw line.
Among the benefits of playing stateside is the ability to remain on NBA scouts' radar. And those that have watched Hairston have been impressed by what they have seen.
"He has a knack and a feel for how to get free from defenders," said a Western Conference executive. "He can attack and score extremely well. I see him as a mid-first-round pick."
Hairston admits the D-League lifestyle has been an adjustment. He has traded charter planes and direct flights for commercial jets with the occasional long layovers. He lives in an apartment with a teammate near the arena. He drives to and from practice every morning. The comfortable life of a star college athlete has been replaced by the cold existence of a player in the minor leagues trying to make it to the next level.
"You have to be mentally and physically ready for games," Hairston said. "But that's good. Leaving [North Carolina] was a shock, but getting back to playing made it easy to focus. Going into my first game, I didn't want to go in and play like a rookie. I didn't want to have a nonchalant, timid attitude. I'm playing against guys who are there playing on assignment or trying to get called up. Guys are stronger and much bigger. In college shooting guards are 6-1 or 6-2. Here, they are 6-5 or 6-6."
Hairston says he still watches UNC games when he can. At first it was hard -- "I watched a game the first day I got to Texas and remember thinking, 'Wow, I was just there a few days ago,'" Hairston said -- but he says he still pulls for his former team. He swaps texts and calls with his former teammates regularly and says "I wish them nothing but the best."
The next step for Hairston is the NBA draft combine in May. And Hairston knows what is coming. Team officials will ask for specifics about what happened at North Carolina. They will want to know if he has any regrets. They will ask if he couldn't handle the off the court distractions in college, what will be different in the NBA?
"I'll tell them that the past is the past," Hairston said. "Things happen. It's the past for a reason, you have to let it go someday."
For now, Hairston says he is focused on the fundamentals. He said he has worked hard on his ball handling to better prepare himself for taking people off the dribble -- one of his strengths -- and being more consistent, an area NBA scouts have identified as a weakness. For Hairston, a season that began as a disaster still has a chance to be salvaged.
"This is another opportunity, a great opportunity, to show my skills," Hairston said. "It's a chance to show that I'm not just as a college athlete, but as a pro athlete."