P.J. Hairston convinces Hornets he has owned up to his mistakes

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comJune 27, 2014 

Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho is a bit preoccupied with intel.

He makes it his job to know every obscure thing about players he might acquire, to avoid wasting a draft pick or salary-cap space on a losing bet.

On Thursday the Hornets bet the 26th pick on shooting guard P.J. Hairston, who made a mountain of trouble for himself that cost him his college eligibility. Between a job interview in Chicago and two workouts in Charlotte, Hairston convinced the Hornets he’s grown up and can be trusted.

“There are concerns always when there have been things in the past,” coach Steve Clifford said. “But we did a ton of intel on all of these guys. Not one guy making one call.

“If we weren’t comfortable he can be a dependable, efficient NBA player, we wouldn’t have taken him so high.”

Hairston, who played for North Carolina before losing his NCAA eligibility, was arrested in a traffic stop in Durham last summer. He was arrested for marijuana possession (the charge was later dropped), and a handgun was found near the car he was in.

The NCAA later revoked his eligibility, related to him using a rental car that was an impermissible benefit. Along the way, he was charged with speeding between Greensboro and Charlotte in another high-profile incident.

The Hornets kept an open mind to drafting Hairston after that Chicago interview at the NBA Draft Combine. Hairston came across as a guy who owned his mistakes and had learned from them.

“There was nobody else to blame. I put myself in that situation, and I had to pay the consequences,” Hairston recalled of what he told Hornets management. “It was up to me to turn it all around – that I was able to overcome what’s happened in the last 12 months.”

A 6-foot-6 guard, Hairston found his way back by playing for the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League. He was suddenly matched against older players, most of them far more experienced than him, if not necessarily as talented.

As awkward as moving to the D-League was, it made him a better player and a more mature person.

“The D-League wasn’t my choice, but when I was there it was, ‘OK, this is your job now,’ ” Hairston said. “I wasn’t playing against boys now; I was playing against men. I think that’s huge in getting me prepared for the NBA – playing against guys just as strong, just as athletic, just as quick as me.”

He was productive, averaging 21.8 points on 45 percent shooting from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range. Long-range shooting is something the Hornets badly lack, so he’ll get every chance to play in Charlotte.

Also, Hairston isn’t the only one who sees his D-League time as a net benefit.

“The experience of going to the D-League is a big advantage,” Clifford said. “He’s played pro basketball.”

But was it a good choice for the NBA team geographically closest to where Hairston found trouble to have drafted him? Hairston assures the things that undermined his reputation aren’t still hovering close by.

“I now have a smaller circle (of acquaintances), and I keep my family in that smaller circle,” he said.

Clifford plans to keep Hairston and fellow first-round pick Noah Vonleh very busy this off-season. He immediately told them the best way to prepare for their rookie seasons is to be in the Hornets’ practice gym daily, working with the coaching staff and the strength-and-conditioning staff. Clifford expects that to start on Monday.

Clifford likes Hairston’s offensive skill set. His defense? Not so much.

“That’s not his strength yet,” Clifford said. “But he certainly has toughness and physicality and instincts. So there’s no reason why he can’t be a good defender.”

Hairston owned that one, too.

“I’m not a bad defender, but there are things I need to work on,” Hairston said. “On-the-ball defense is probably my weakest thing. But it’s not something I can’t fix.”

Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter@rick_bonnell

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