CHAPEL HILL — There was one game in high school when P.J. Hairston made eight 3-pointers, he said. Or maybe it was nine. Hairston, the sophomore guard at North Carolina, knows the game was at Southern Durham High, but he cant remember how many shots he made. It was difficult to keep up.
It was scary in high school, watching me sometimes, Hairston, a Greensboro native, said recently. It was crazy.
It was scary watching Hairston at times during his freshman season at UNC, too, though not in the way he intended. Hairston arrived at UNC with a shooters reputation, yet for a long time last season he wondered when he might make his next 3-pointer. They were difficult to come by.
Was he really a good shooter? Hairston said he sometimes wondered. At one point, during a 17-game stretch from Jan. 10, 2012 through March 10, Hairston made just seven of his 50 3-point attempts.
Thats probably the worst Ive ever shot a basketball in my life, he said.
Hairston speaks in matter-of-fact tones about the prolonged slump he endured during his freshman season. But what he went through last year has helped better appreciate what hes been able to do more recently. During his past four games, Hairston has made 14 of his 21 3-point attempts.
The mechanics were never Hairstons problem, said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team plays at Miami on Saturday. Hairston arrived on campus with balance issues, and with a tendency to fade away on his shots or poke out his foot during his release. Those things were correctable.
Theres nothing mechanically wrong with his shot, Williams said, describing Hairstons improvement from last season to this. He didnt need a doctor. He just he needed to look in the mirror.
During his first year on a college campus, playing on a team that didnt lack for talent, Hairston admits now that he took advantage of newfound freedom. He went out a lot, he said, and there were nights when he barely slept.
Looking back, Hairston said, I had issues off the court that I didnt handle, and kind of carried onto the court. I kind of lacked focus, and lacked maturity, as well.
What happened off the court affected him on it. If he hadnt been interested in going out as frequently, Hairston acknowledged he could have spent more time working through his shooting struggles. If he hadnt been so tired, he might not have fallen back into old habits that hindered his shooting form.
After the season ended, Hairston spent some time back home with his mother. He spoke of a conversation they shared, and some inspirational words she imparted.
She told me honestly, Hairston said. She didnt tell me in the best way, but she told me in a way that I would understand it I dont think you can put it into the newspaper. But whatever she said helped me, for sure.
Hairstons transformation from where he was to where he wants to be is still ongoing. That transformation began slowly, too, at least when it came to tangible results.
Before the season began, Hairston said he had worked through the problems that plagued his shot. But inconsistency remained a part of his offensive game for much of the first half of the season.
He missed all five of his 3-pointers during UNCs season-opening victory against Gardner-Webb. He was as likely to make four out of seven 3-point attempts, as he did during a victory against Mississippi State in the Maui Invitational, as he was to miss six of his next eight, as he did the next day against Butler.
Since the start of ACC play, though, Hairston has become one of the Tar Heels most reliable scorers. He has one more point (59) than minutes played in his past four games, and hes second in the ACC in points per 40 minutes.
Hairston was in the midst of the best first half of his career last week at Boston College before one of his teammates, Dexter Strickland, accidentally elbowed him in the face while the Tar Heels were on defense. Before that moment, Hairston had scored 14 points and made all four of his 3s. But the blow, which came with about four minutes left before halftime, knocked Hairston to the floor, where he remained for several minutes.
All he remembers about it now is laying on a stretcher, the lights from above hurting his eyes. UNCs medical staff quickly diagnosed Hairston with a concussion, and he missed the Heels next game, an overtime victory against Virginia Tech. He returned against Wake Forest and missed his first 3-point attempt before making his final two.
Williams, who criticized Hairstons hustle after a loss at N.C. State, remains skeptical that Hairston has indeed regained his shooting touch. Williams wants to see more evidence.
I wouldnt say that hes got his shot back until somebody does it for a whole year, he said.
In the meantime, Hairston has learned the importance of other facets of the game, too. When he didnt dive for a loose ball in the loss at N.C. State, Williams benched Hairston for an extended period.
It was a lesson, Hairston said, that he has tried to learn from. Williams said on Friday that Hairston recently has done other things that has allowed me to keep him in the game not just being a standstill jump shooter.
Williams pointed to Hairstons recent offensive rebounding, and his defense.
His shooting, and even his defense and getting rebounds and everything has gone up another level in the games that hes been playing recently, Marcus Paige, UNCs freshman point guard, said of Hairston. When he shoots the ball well he helps us out, but when hes also rebounding, playing defense and really giving us an edge physically, hes even more helpful.
Most of all, though, Hairston of late has sparked the Tar Heels offense with his shooting. His recent success has him feeling good again, like he used to years ago before the distractions of last season and all those missed shots.
The way Im shooting now, Hairston said, it definitely feels like high school.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter