P.J. Hairston has spent most of his life talking about shooting a basketball. It's always been in complimentary terms. Coaches want to tell him how gifted he is. Teammates want to know how he stays so consistent. Fans want to congratulate him for another big performance.
Since the end of his freshman season at Carolina, however, Hairston has spent more time answering what's wrong with his shot than what's right with his shot. That's what happens when you go 12-for-70 (hide your eyes: that's 17.1 percent) from the three-point line over the final 21 games of the season. That's 12 successful three-pointers in just under 11 weeks.
Hairston knows all the numbers. To him, though, even worse than the numbers was the way the shooting slump made him uncomfortable on a basketball court. And he knows the exact moment when his struggles began.
"It started with the Long Beach State game," he says of Carolina's 84-78 win on Dec. 10. "I took three shots, they were all three-pointers, and I airballed all three of them. I remember as soon as the game was over I went back out and shot about 150 shots because I knew I could do better than that. I've never airballed three shots in a game before. I knew I could at least hit the rim. It was frustrating, and it made me feel like I didn't want to shoot anymore."
The numbers support the game against the 49ers-a team also on this year's schedule, as the Tar Heels travel to Long Beach on Nov. 16-as the turning point. Before that game, Hairston was hitting 46.1 percent of his three-pointers, connecting on 18 of his 39 tries in his first 10 games as a Tar Heel. He would make just 20 percent of his three-point tries over his final 27 games of the year.
In some ways, the offensive struggles were a necessary part of a freshman's adjustment to college basketball, because it forced Hairston to find other ways to contribute to the team. But, really, he is a scorer, and scorers have to score.
So those grisly numbers mean there's really only one question about Hairston's upcoming sophomore campaign: what has he done to make sure his freshman year doesn't happen again?
By now, it's a familiar question for the Greensboro native. He rattles off a list of reasons:
He's lost some weight. After playing between 220 and 225 pounds last season, he's down to 218. "This is the perfect weight for me," he says. "I'm lighter on my feet and I'm quicker."
He's watched a good deal of film of his freshman field goal attempts and has seen some of the mechanical flaws his coaches often mentioned to him. Sometimes he landed off-balance. Sometimes he kicked one leg out for no apparent reason. New assistant coach Hubert Davis asked Hairston to watch film of Ray Allen, which was instructive.
"Watching Ray Allen is like watching a tutorial," Hairston says. "He goes straight up and down. No matter how he catches the ball, he's always square. That's something I can do a much better job of doing, and I'm working on it."
What might ultimately help Hairston's offense the most, though, is that he's making an effort to get different shots. As a freshman, he was almost totally reliant on his three-point shot, hoisting over 70 percent of his field goal attempts from beyond the three-point line. When those jumpers weren't falling, it was difficult for him to contribute any offense.
But Roy Williams asked him to focus over the summer on two areas of his game that would make Hairston a more complete player: his ball-handling and his midrange jumper.
"I've been working on both of those, and it has paid off," Hairston says. "I'm more comfortable dribbling. It allows me to create my own shot, and I feel I can put it on the floor whenever I want to. If I need to step back or do a spin move to get a shot, I'm capable of doing it now."
The player who sometimes dreaded stepping back on the court as a freshman looks downright eager as a sophomore. "There's something about this year that makes me want to play harder than I've ever played," he says. "There's something different about this year."