CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — P.J. Hairston is smart enough to know how to respond when a reporter asks him, after a rather productive performance in his team’s most notable victory of the season, if he should start or at least get more playing time.
Naturally, the North Carolina sophomore gave an answer his Hall of Fame coach would approve of, and probably the best response in general.
“I guess so,” Hairston responded after UNC (10-3) defeated UNLV 79-73 on Dec. 29. “I feel like I did a lot more on defense today than I’ve done the whole season. And I feel like I can play defense like this all the time if I put my mind to it and take it to the court instead of leaving it in practice.”
Regardless of what Hairston dodges and admits, the question still needs to be asked: Should Roy Williams start him?
On the surface, the answer is a quick yes. Hairston is one of UNC’s top three players, along with junior wing Reggie Bullock and sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo. So, naturally, he should be on the floor more than most of the other Tar Heels.
Hairston is a scorer. He finished with 15 points in the first start of his career against the Rebels. The Greensboro, NC, native was in the opening lineup because Bullock was out with a mild concussion, but replacing Bullock long term isn’t going to happen.
The 6-foot-5-1/2 Hairston is supposed to be an excellent perimeter shooter, but he struggled last season. And through 13 contests this year, he has converted only 34 percent of his 3-point attempts. (Hairston was 2 for 5 from beyond the arc against UNLV.) He can drive to the basket, using his strong midsection to gain separation and get off shots. He can rebound, he defended exceptionally well against Vegas and he fights for open space around the rim. It also isn’t a stretch to declare Hairston to be North Carolina’s toughest player.
Hairston, who averages 12.4 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 18.8 minutes per game, recognizes that’s part of his game with the Tar Heels.
“I just go in and play,” he said. “I always want to come out with energy just so I can play well on each end of the court. Those are the things that the coaches like — for you to play hard … and play together.”
But given UNC’s composition, whom would he supplant in the starting lineup?
Coach Roy Williams isn’t going to remove freshman point guard Marcus Paige or senior shooting guard Dexter Strickland, who also helps Paige at the point. McAdoo? Nope. Thus, the only options are: Go small and start the 6-7 Bullock at the four and insert Hairston into the small forward spot, or maintain the current system by rotating the starters at the five — Desmond Hubert got the call against UNLV — and keeping Hairston as a spark off the bench.
In a way, that role may best suit these Tar Heels and perhaps even Hairston. He can serve as a nightly juice injection but with a more defined role in filling UNC’s needs for points, rebounds and in-your-face defense. Hairston could be lethal in this role.
Coming off the bench, Hairston already has reached double figures seven times in 11 games (he was sidelined for UNC’s loss to then-No. 1 Indiana on Nov. 27). He tallied 18 points twice and posted a career-high 20 against McNeese State on Dec. 22.
To Williams, that doesn’t really matter. Hairston’s skills are what they are, whether he starts or remains a super sub. The main thing, the coach says, is for Hairston to relax and be who he is.
“Reggie had probably been playing better than anyone else on our team to this point, and then all of a sudden find out he’s not going to play — it was a pretty big blow,” Williams said. “We told P.J., ‘You don’t have to be anybody else, just be yourself,’ … He really did some good things.”
More minutes for Hairston will mean more good things for the Tar Heels, and that’s a formula Williams should and likely will embrace.