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Ineligible at North Carolina, P.J. Hairston found an alternate way to get better

North Carolina NCAA Basketball
Gerry Broome - AP
North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston couldn’t play for the Tar Heels after NCAA eligibility problems, but he found an alternate way to get better, playing in the NBA Development League.

CHICAGO Former North Carolina star P.J. Hairston learned a lot during his three-month exile to the NBA’s Development League.

How to beat players off the dribble. How to defend with greater consistency. How to set an alarm clock.

That last one proved to be an important job skill.

“This is not easy – you have to work your butt off,” Hairston said of playing for the Texas Legends after losing his NCAA eligibility last season. “Whatever it took, I did it. I got up early every morning, and I’m not a morning person. That was one of the hardest things for me – I told myself I had to do it.

“I told myself if I do this every morning, I will walk across that stage.”

The stage Hairston referred to is the one the NBA will use June 26 for its annual draft. Hairston, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Greensboro, would be happy if the Charlotte Bobcats chose him 24th overall. But he’d also be happy if any team used any of the 60 picks in the 2014 draft on him.

This winter reminded Hairston how fragile a sports career can be. He had a lapse of judgment, accepting use of a rental car against NCAA rules, that cost him his college eligibility. It threw the Tar Heels’ season upside-down for a while and left him wondering, now what?

“It was a real big shock. I was expecting 8-10 games (of suspension). It was probably the worst news of my life,” he said, during a media session at the NBA Draft Combine. “When I was told I couldn’t play, it felt like the worst thing. At the same time, I couldn’t go sob and cry and be mad at myself – I needed to figure out what was next.”

Playing in Europe would have been the most lucrative option, but Hairston was trying to continue working toward his degree with on-line courses. He felt going to Europe would disrupt that. So he investigated the D-League and was told any player who’d lost NCAA eligibility could immediately apply to the NBA’s minor-league system.

It was an imperfect solution, but it was a solution. The side benefit: It kept him in the NBA’s field of vision. So he headed to the Legends, who are coached by ex-Bobcat Eddie Najera.

He averaged 21.8 points, shooting 45 percent from the field. He launched a slew of 3-pointers – nearly eight per game. He learned pros take a different approach to coaching from the tight reins Roy Williams held in Chapel Hill.

“It’s a professional league, not like college where you have someone holding your hand, saying, ‘Shoot this, don’t shoot that!’ It’s basically up to you,” Hairston said. “You’re a man and you have to take care of your business on the court.”

He suddenly faced players older, stronger and far more experienced. Hairston said the biggest difference between the D-League and ACC ball was how much more intensely defense was played. It forced him to broaden his skill set and toughen up mentally.

“Things I didn’t do at North Carolina I did more at Texas. I became versatile,” Hairston said. “My mid-range game needs to be better. It’s a consistency thing – shoot until it’s perfect.”

There was nothing perfect about Hairston’s winter, but it could have been much worse in the absence of the D-League.

“I wasn’t supposed to be in the D-League, but it helped me a lot,” Hairston said. “It’s definitely healthy there was an alternate way to get better.”

Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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