Barring a last-minute change, Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford plans to start second-year pro P.J. Hairston in Wednesday’s season opener against the Miami Heat.
Clifford also plans to start Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Al Jefferson. He is still deciding whether to start Cody Zeller or Marvin Williams at power forward.
Clifford used the Hornets’ last seven exhibitions to judge who was best suited to fill in for small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, out a projected six months following shoulder surgery. Clifford tried Hairston, Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin and Williams in various starting combinations.
“I think P.J. will end up at (small forward), then we’ll just have to figure it out from there,” Clifford said following practice Monday. “I want to be able to play four out (four perimeter shooters surrounding center Jefferson in the post) as much as we can.
“I would say P.J. with the first group gives us space shooting and a defender who can guard primary scorers.”
I’m excited, but I don’t want to show it yet. Wednesday isn’t here yet, and I’m just keeping my mind clear, focused on what I have to do.
P.J. Hairston, on being named the Hornets’ potential starter at small forward
Clifford said a factor in this decision is how certain playing groups fit together. He’s excited how quickly the second unit, with mostly new players, has blended in the preseason.
“The group that has been so good is Jeremy Lin and Jeremy Lamb with another perimeter player, plus Cody and Spencer (Hawes). What you like to do is get to groups where they can develop that chemistry. That’s why I don’t like starting different guys on different nights.”
Hairston, a former North Carolina star, had an up-and-down rookie season after the Hornets acquired his draft rights from the Heat. A 6-6 shooting guard-small forward, he averaged 5.4 points and two rebounds. He played in 45 games, starting twice.
Hairston missed several exhibitions while recovering from a calf injury. Clifford praised his improved defense of late.
“He wants me to step up to be a defensive role-player and make some shots. He told me in the preseason it’s not all about me making shots, that he wants me to be a defensive stopper,” Hairston said. “He’s just giving me my chance and I want to make the most of it.
“I’m excited, but I don’t want to show it yet. Wednesday isn’t here yet, and I’m just keeping my mind clear, focused on what I have to do.”
Asked specifically about his improved defense, Hairston said, “My rookie year I had a hard time learning it. I’m not bad at catching on to things. This year I knew what he expected, how he wants things to go.
“I feel a lot more comfortable than last year for sure.”
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