P.J. Hairston: More Green Than Graves

Streeter Lecka

The sophomore shooter has reached a crossroads that two Tar Heel forbears know well--and the paths before him couldn't be more different.

Will Graves entered Chapel Hill in 2006 as part of the nation’s top recruiting class—along with Brandon Wright, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, Alex Stepheson, and Deon Thompson. But he was the only recruit asked not to play, redshirting for a team already loaded with wing players and setting the stage for a career fraught with setbacks, failures, and disappointments.

The following season, the two-time high school state champion and former North Carolina High School Player of the Year would see only 5.2 minutes and 2.2 points per game for the Heels, including a mere 10 total minutes and 3 total points in the last four games of their 2008 Final Four run.

Carolina’s ensuing national championship in 2009 would seem to provide a lone bright spot in Graves’s career—except that he wasn’t a part of it, having been suspended from the team 20 games into the season. In 2009-10, he was a major contributor on the worst team since Doherty; the third-best player for the NIT runners-up.

Then in October 2010, after repeated violations of team rules, Graves was finally dismissed from the team for good. Later that season while the Heels were clinching an improbable 2011 regular season ACC title at home against Duke, he spent his would-be senior night half a world away in a Japanese pro league. Thus, Graves’s UNC career ended the same way it began, with him being asked not to play.

Among the many wing players ahead of Graves on the depth chart that first year was a 6’6” small forward from North Babylon, New York named Danny Green. Green was part of a Top 10 2005 recruiting class that included Marcus Ginyard, Mike Copeland, and fellow McDonald’s All-Americans Tyler Hansbrough and Bobby Frasor.

Green would go on to become one of the most reliable Tar Heels in recent memory, immediately embarking on a three-year stint as Roy Williams’s signature instant-offense sixth man before starting every game as a senior for the 2009 National Champions, missing only one game in his entire four years in Chapel Hill. Green was among North Carolina’s top four scorers in three of his four years as a Tar Heel (placing sixth as a sophomore), but also developed his defensive game in a way Graves never did. He is the only player in Carolina history to block 100 or more shots and make 50 or more threes in a career (155 blocks, 184 made threes).

Green places 8th all-time at Carolina in made three-pointers (his wingman Ellington is 2nd with 229), 9th all-time in blocks, 3rd in career free throw percentage (.845), 35th in total points (1,368), 2nd in games played (145), and 1st in total wins played (123) and ACC wins played (58). He is, by all accounts, the winningest player in Carolina history. Green’s Carolina teams won two ACC tournaments, claimed three regular season conference titles (finishing 2nd his freshman year), went to three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, and notched a national championship. He is currently the starting shooting guard for a Spurs team that finished with the best record in the NBA last season.

Two very different trajectories for careers that were, at one point, remarkably similar. Compare their sophomore seasons:

Graves: 4.0 ppg, 2.5rpg, 0.8 apg, .437 FG, .278 3FG, .889 FT, 11.2 mpg

Green: 5.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.1 apg, .411 FG, .296 3FG, .848 FT, 13.6 mpg

After his first year in Chapel Hill, Hairston appears to be at this very crossroads:

Hairston: 5.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 0.8 apg, .308 FG, .273 3FG, .839 FT, 13.0 mpg

So the question is, which course will Hairston’s future follow?

Similarities between Hairston and Graves are apparent: stout 6’6” guard/forwards from Greensboro, N.C. whose incoming offensive reputations outshined tempered defensive expectations. But one could just as easily liken the sophomore to Green—another 6’6” combo wing and McDonald’s All-American whose calling card until his senior year was instant offense off the bench.

Hairston could follow the arc of either one of these players, but after one season in Chapel Hill, he seems more Green than Graves for two major reasons:

First, while Hairston’s had enough youthful indiscretions to draw the ire of his coaches (jacking 40-footers during warm-ups in the midst of a protracted shooting slump, issuing misguided tweets regarding his injury status, etc.), he has also shown a willingness to be coached and accept guidance that the insular Graves never seemed to grasp. Hairston seems more trusting and open to the possibility that his coaches might actually know better than he does.

His is a brand of humility that implies a fundamental confidence in his own ability and opens numerous pathways for development as a player and person. It’s a selfless brand of confidence that seems to liberate him from an impulse to harness his ability and protect his game. Where Graves confined himself to his comfort zone, Hairston is more expansive, exploratory, and willing to give the reins of direction to the people who know best—which bodes well for a player who, like Green, could develop into a key glue guy that can do a little bit of everything.

Secondly, he has fallen seamlessly into the role of "enforcer," a seat that Green occupied for so much of his time in Chapel Hill. Every really good team has one: the guy who’s not afraid to deliver a hard foul when it’s needed or get into an opponent to let him know we won’t be pushed around, the guy who doesn’t need words to get his message across. Sometimes it’s the football player (Peppers, Noel). Sometimes it’s one of your bigs (Lynch, Sheed). But often it ends up being a wing player. He may be the awe-inspiring who intimidates out of sheer athletic dominance (Jordan, Carter), or the abrasive variety who chafes opposing fankind and the basketball intelligentsia alike (McCants). But he’s always a guy who plays with the proverbial chip on his shoulder.

Graves never had that chip. (Neither did anybody on that 2010 team.) Soft-spoken and a nice enough guy, there was never that visceral presence about him. He was more readily mistaken as lazy or lackadaisical than caustic and invested. His sins tended toward sloth over pride.

The chip, by contrast, comes naturally to Hairston (he was shoving Plumlees out of pro-am games well before he donned a Carolina jersey), as does the requisite fearlessness and the characteristic understated confidence. And the rest of the Heels seem to have embraced him in this role as well.

When Creighton’s Grant Gibbs hacked at Henson’s lame wrist after the whistle six minutes into their Round of 32 matchup last March, much of the focus was on Henson’s ensuing technical foul and Gibbs’s wink toward his bench. More telling was who Roy left in to escort Gibbs around the court for the next five minutes. Not only did Hairston silence the agitator (in the more than 10 minutes the two shared the court, Hairston turned Gibbs into a virtual non-factor: 0-1 FG, 0 assists, and 2 rebounds, one of which came on a Hairston missed free throw after Gibbs put him on the line), but he accordingly set the tone for Carolina’s 9-0 run to open up the victory.

These are positive indications. But perhaps the biggest determinant for which course Hairston’s career will take is his ability to not only develop the defensive side of his game, but to become a multi-dimensional offensive threat as well—to become something more than just a shooter. During their pivotal sophomore seasons, both Green and Graves shot well over 50% from two-point range with three-point shots constituting slightly over half of their total field goal attempts. As their careers progressed, however, these numbers show the real difference between Green and Graves.

Over his junior and senior seasons, Green’s three-point shooting had moderated to less than half of his entire field goal repertoire (43% and 47%, respectively), and he continued to consistently shoot above 50% from two-point range (54% and 52%). Green had grown into a much more complete scorer, leading to better overall percentages and better assist numbers year by year.

Graves, on the other hand, became increasingly one-dimensional. During his junior year, 63% of his shot attempts came from beyond the arc, and his two-point percentage plummeted to 36% (even worse than his 37% from deep). He had become predictable, easy to guard, and a mediocre producer on a notoriously unproductive team. (Graves never averaged a full assist per game in his three years in Chapel Hill.)

The numbers flash warning signs here for Hairston. Last season, over 70% of his field goal attempts were three-pointers, and he made only 39% of his two-pointers. So far this season, he’s 25 percent from inside the arc, with three-point field goals continuing to receive the lion’s share of his shot selection.

But there’s a lot of promise here for Hairston, as well. When you think about his highlights from his freshman year, there’s a lot of attacking the rim, crashing the offensive boards, and finishing hard over opponents (something Green knows a little bit about). So, the ability is there—and, more importantly (and unlike Graves), so is the will.

Like Green, Hairston will be called upon again this year to be one of the first guys off the bench to back up two upperclassmen on the wing and inject a bit of offense into a defensive-oriented first unit. If he can find a way to become something more than just a shooter (but also be a shooter) and continue honing his defensive skills, Hairston could become a very valuable player for some very good North Carolina teams.

If not, he might be raining threes from Japan circa 2016.

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