P.J.’s Still Shooting
In Carolina’s first 16 games, Hairston shot 26-of-69 from three-point range (37.7%). He had some big games against quality opponents, like hitting 3-of-5 three’s against UNLV and 3-of-4 against Kentucky (both Carolina losses). And he even started ACC play well with a 2-of-5 performance against Boston College. But in his next 16 games – all against ACC opponents – he made 7-of-50 three’s (14%).
Hairston never shied away from shooting, though. In 219 minutes during that slump, he took 50 three’s. (He even earned the Twitter hashtag #PJBeShootin for his proclivity to take three-pointers, no matter how ill-advised they seemed.)
And his head coach Roy Williams did not hesitate to tell him when a shot was a bad shot. But he also encouraged the then-freshman to shoot his way out of it. “Coach, he told me to keep shooting. He said that’s what I was recruited for, so that’s my job: to shoot the ball and try to do other things,” Hairston said. “I tried to shoot myself out of the slump. Finally in the Florida State game, I kind of did that and it felt a lot better.”
Without Hairston’s performance in the Florida State game, the Tar Heels would have arguably been blown out by the Seminoles in the ACC Championship. Carolina got down by as many as 16 points and any time they made a run, Florida State answered.
But at the 15:30 mark, Hairston was subbed in. Carolina went down by 14 with 14:38 to go, and Hairston, quite simply, got hot.
When he drained the first three-pointer, he thought, “Okay, that’s a good shot.” Then he made his next one. He said to himself, “Okay, I’m feeling it a little bit.” Those three’s came within 59 seconds of each other and cut Florida State’s lead to eight points, just like that.
He missed his next three-pointer just 43 seconds later, but made his next try 52 seconds after that to cut FSU’s lead to seven points. He added two free throws at the 9:58 mark to cut FSU’s lead to five. He took a rest at the 8:41 mark, but he had nearly single-handedly gotten North Carolina back into the game.
During that 15-6 UNC run, he had 11 points.He had gone 69 days without an 11-point game. Suddenly, he had 11 points in a little less than six minutes. The last shot that would have tied the game ultimately went to him, and he missed from the top of the key. He was inconsolable. But Hairston felt that hot streak meant he was back to being himself.
“Once I started hitting shots, I started doing different things on the court and doing other things to try to help the team win,” Hairston said. “I definitely want to step up more and just try to contribute more to the team, not just shooting but taking charges, the things (Williams) likes us to do.”
But just because he had one good game towards the end of the year didn’t mean that Hairston was satisfied by any means. In the off-season, Williams hired Hubert Davis as an assistant coach (Davis was the best three-point shooter in Carolina basketball history, making 43.5% in his career).
Davis watched Hairston take a few three-pointers. He saw that the rising sophomore was kicking his leg out on nearly every attempt and sometimes letting his elbow flop out as well. Davis sat Hairston down and told him what he needed to do. It wasn’t an overhaul of his shooting form, but more like minor tweaks here and there: tighter elbow, no leg-kick, hold the follow-through.
“He told me ‘To be a good shooter, you have to do this, you have to do that’. It was just like having another class,” Hairston said. “He was teaching me everything I needed to do. Once I got the mechanics down, I stopped kicking my foot out more. I’ve been going straight up and down and the shot’s been falling. So apparently he’s right. I’m just going to keep taking his advice and hopefully it carries over to the season.”
Davis gave Hairston a tape of all the shots he had made last season to see what went right. Then he gave them a tape of the ones he missed “which was a lot”, Hairston quipped. He found what Davis said was true: on most of his misses, he was kicking his foot out or his elbow was too far out.
Just watching it made me think, ‘Okay, I can hit shots. It’s just up to me to do it and to do it right.’
Davis was a great shooter both in college and in the NBA, where he made 44.1% of his three’s in a 12-year professional career. So he certainly has credibility with Hairston. But the sophomore was 11 when Davis played his final NBA season, so he still hasn’t seen any highlights of Davis’ trademark shooting stroke.
“I’ve seen him around the gym working out the guys and he’s shooting. I can tell he still has his stroke,” Hairston said. “But I haven’t watched any clips on him, but that’s a good idea. I think I might do that.”
And like any good shooter, he’s still brimming with confidence. When asked if he thought who would win a shooting contest between he and one of the best shooters ever, he hesitated perhaps slightly longer than he would before taking a three-pointer: “I think I would win.”