One of the benefits of being a Carolina basketball player is the vast array of resources available in the hoops world.
As usual for a Tar Heel pondering a leap to the next level, P.J. Hairston leaned on head coach Roy Williams to provide feedback from the NBA on Hairston's professional prospects. But the sophomore from Greensboro also went straight to the source for a first-hand report on what it takes to play at the game's highest level.
With some free time in the car two weeks ago, Hairston called former teammate John Henson, a rookie with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks.
"We talked for about 30 minutes," Hairston said. "He basically told me that it's a different level. He said they're a lot stronger, and they're not necessarily faster, but you can tell they're grown men. He told me the most important thing was to make sure I felt like I was ready for whatever decision I was going to make."
Eventually, of course, that decision was to stay in Chapel Hill for another season. That means the next time he sees Henson--who begins NBA playoff competition on Saturday against the defending world champion Miami Heat--it will be on the floor of the Smith Center in the annual summer pickup games between current players and professional alumni.
The current Tar Heels have already begun offseason conditioning and pickup, and it was in one of those games that Hairston suffered a reoccurrence of the hand injury he sustained in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals against Florida State. The sophomore from Greensboro persevered after that bloody injury and played the rest of the season with his hand heavily wrapped.
In the month since the Tar Heel season ended in Kansas City, Hairston had slowly worked his way back to health--or so he thought. He had the stitches removed from that injury and eventually thought he'd be safe to try playing without his hand wrapped.
That lasted only one day before the injury reopened during a pickup game.
"I felt it as soon as it happened," Hairston says. "I looked at my hand and it was split back open. It wasn't as strange as it was last time. I was just like, 'OK, it happened again.'"
And then six more stitches happened again. Hairston had the second set of stitches removed Wednesday, so he'll be able to cautiously work his way back into the usual pickup rotation.
As those games progress, it's remarkable how much of a transition Hairston has made in just a year. Last summer at this time, he was coming off a miserable shooting season and struggling to identify a role. This summer, he's the player who was Carolina's leading scorer in 2013 and one of the two junior cornerstones of what should be an experienced club--Roy Williams could potentially start a senior (Leslie McDonald), a pair of juniors (Hairston and James Michael McAdoo) and a point guard who started 34 games (Marcus Paige)--in 2014.
Next year's roster should include players who started a combined 108 games this year, and Hairston played well enough as a sophomore that even his teammates are excited to see how his game might develop as a junior.
"P.J. is going to be great next year," Paige says. "When his game opened up and he got more opportunities, you saw what he could do at the end of this year. It's great that we're going to have P.J. and James Michael back to develop their games and lead us next year."
It's worth remembering that Hairston knew his game would evolve this summer, and he clearly had the option of letting that progress take place under the tutelage of the NBA. Instead, he made the conscious decision to do that work in Chapel Hill. After multiple conversations with Williams over the past month, Hairston has a few key areas of emphasis over the summer.
As a freshman, nearly 70 percent of his field goal attempts were three-pointers. As a sophomore, that figure dipped to 60 percent. His goal is for his offense to be even more diversified as a junior.
"I want to be more of a slasher," Hairston says. "I don't want people to know how to guard me. I want to confuse defenses because they are worried that I can either shoot it or get to the rim. I want to work on more of a midrange game, and I want to improve my ballhandling."