Charlotte Hornets

Why P.J. Hairston is the Hornets’ cameo starter

Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Hairston (19) has been asked to primarily focus on defense as a cameo starter this season.
Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Hairston (19) has been asked to primarily focus on defense as a cameo starter this season. AP

Fans have a hard time getting their heads around why P.J. Hairston starts for the Charlotte Hornets.

Let coach Steve Clifford explain:

“He has the size and strength to guard primary scorers,” Clifford said Thursday. “You have to have those guys. He is technically getting better. He’s bright. He’s been here now, so he knows what we’re doing.”

The Hornets took a major hit during the preseason when small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tore a labrum, requiring shoulder surgery. The plan at the wing positions was for Kidd-Gilchrist to be the defensive stopper and for Nic Batum to facilitate the offense.

Clifford didn’t feel it was realistic to ask Batum to be the offensive centerpiece and make him continuously guard the opposing team’s best scorer. That was going to lead to foul trouble the Hornets couldn’t afford.

Clifford experimented with starting Jeremy Lamb or Jeremy Lin during the preseason and didn’t see a great fit. So he went to Hairston with an idea: Be a starter with the agenda of playing tough defense: Give fouls, make the opposing star work for his points and don’t worry about your minutes or whether you play late in games.

It has worked in the sense that the Hornets were a surprising 15-10 entering Saturday’s road game against the Washington Wizards.

“When coach asked me to take that role I said, ‘Yes! I’ll do that!’ From the first game, when I guarded (Dwyane) Wade, I knew I could be a great defender. I just had to put my mind to it,” Hairston said.

The Hornets acquired former North Carolina star Hairston in a draft-night trade with the Miami Heat in 2014. He was effectively their first-round pick, chosen 25th overall.

There have been misadventures: A fracas with a high-school kid at a Durham YMCA, a missed practice and a missed weight-lifting session his rookie season. The Hornets sent a strong message in November when they chose not to exercise his rookie-scale option for next season.

As general manager Rich Cho said at the time, “We just feel like P.J. has got to get more consistent and focused on and off the court.”

That in effect makes this a season-long audition for Hairston, both for the Hornets and the entire NBA. He will be an unrestricted free agent in July.

He feels he’s making an impact.

“I do things on the defensive end that people don’t see. I’m really, really excited to see what happens next,” Hairston said.

“Now that I know I have to guard ‘The Guy’ every night, it’s nothing really new to me. I’m used to it. I know in Houston (on Monday) I’ll have to guard James Harden. I just put my mind to it and do it.”

Hornets forward Marvin Williams said it’s commendable Hairston has worked to reinvent himself to what Clifford needs.

“His mindset has completely changed from an offensive player to a guy who really tries to keep these guys from scoring. It does help our team because Nic doesn’t always have to guard those guys,” Williams said.

“He’s so physically gifted. He’s so strong, so agile.”

Hairston was touted as a shooter-scorer, but his NBA statistics so far – 33 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range – say otherwise.

Of late his offense has improved. He scored 14 points in each of the past two games, shooting 10-of-21 from the field and 5-of-10 from 3-point range. He made a huge 3 Thursday during overtime against Toronto.

“When you keep doing the little things, something big is going to happen at the end,” Hairston said. “That’s how I look at it. In this game it was a win and a big shot. It felt good.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell