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Charlotte Hornets P.J. Hairston wants to be team’s ‘maker’

“I look back at last year as a learning stage for me,” Charlotte Hornets guard-forward P.J. Hairston says. “I just kind of want to change from last year and be a different P.J. than people saw.”
“I look back at last year as a learning stage for me,” Charlotte Hornets guard-forward P.J. Hairston says. “I just kind of want to change from last year and be a different P.J. than people saw.” dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

P.J. Hairston talks at Time Warner Cable Arena after a Charlotte Summer League practice. He has already finished a group session, so our interview is overtime. He’s gracious, he offers his hand when we finish, and he’s on time.

We know Hairston. He’s from Greensboro, played at North Carolina for two seasons, and on draft night 2014 became a Charlotte Hornet.

At North Carolina he was known for scoring, shooting and a recurring role in The Fast and the Furious Chapel Hill. His highlights were as likely to include misadventures on the roads and as good work on the court. After a recurring battle with the NCAA, the Tar Heels let him go.

Although a gas pedal was not involved, the misadventures continued his rookie year in Charlotte. Hairston skipped a practice and was declared inactive for a December game. He showed up late for a weight-lifting session and again was declared inactive for a game in March.

This might not sound like much. But NBA jobs are tough to come by, and players routinely arrive early regardless of their role. They’re in the league and, man, do they want to stay. Coaches notice, teammates notice, and the media notices, too.

You think we made too much of the missed practice and weight-lifting session?

“I wouldn’t blame anybody else for it,” says Hairston, his back against a wall outside the visitor’s locker room. “It was me. I just made mistakes that I couldn’t afford to make and I did them. I look back at last year as a learning stage for me. I just kind of want to change from last year and be a different P.J. than people saw.”

Which P.J. did you see?

“I’d just say inconsistent,” says Hairston, who is 6-6 and 220 pounds, athletic and strong. “I feel like I had some flashes during the season where I was real good, and I had some flashes where I could do some things better, and of course I had some flashes where I need to get it together.

“But that’s what the summer is for. I’ve been in the gym two months, 21/2months, straight. I’ve just been working. I’m trying to get better as a player mentally and physically and trying to do everything better.”

It’s fair to ask if Hairston is being courteous and cooperative because he wants to impress his employer. His rookie contract guarantees only two seasons; if he stays for a third, it’s because the Hornets exercise their option.

It’s also fair to acknowledge that Hairston is 22-years-old. Who among us is fully formed at 22? At 22, most of us are figuring out who we want to be and what we have to do to get there.

Miami selected Hairston with the 26th pick in the 2014 draft and – in a trade that had been arranged – sent him to Charlotte. The Hornets needed an outside shooter. They always need an outside shooter. And now, they hoped, they had one.

Unfortunately, Charlotte’s long-range shooting again was so bad that defenders could pack the lane, nod toward the perimeter and say, “Y’all go ahead.”

The theme of almost every conversation leading to the 2015 draft was: Charlotte needs a shooter.

Did that bother you?

“Not at all,” says Hairston. “They can say we need a shooter. We can have all the shooters. We need a maker. I feel like I can be the maker on the team. I just have to put my foot down and do it.”

Last season Hairston averaged 5.6 points (19th best among rookies) and shot 32.3% from the field and 30.1% from behind the 3-point line. Of the 12 Hornets that took 3-pointers last season, Hairston’s percentage was 11th. But he owned Lance Stephenson.

Yet, watch Hairston when he shoots. Look at the release. He’s confident and he’s smooth. In two games he was 3 of 5 behind the 3-point line. He’d start to get his shot working and – as a rookie averaging 15.3 minutes, couldn’t sustain it.

Associate Charlotte head coach Patrick Ewing, who will coach the summer league team, says he expects Hairston this summer to “score the ball, take good shots and be a leader on the offensive and defensive end.”

Does he have to prove to you that he can play?

“He’s got to prove it to himself,” Ewing says. “He’s trying to make a name for himself. He’s trying to solidify himself in the rotation. And everything starts here.”

Hairston says it has already started.

“I’m more comfortable handling all the screen and rolls,” he says about his work in the gym. “I’m more comfortable throwing the pocket pass. I’ve been working on ball handling and midrange game and the floater, just different things that I’ve added.”

What about the shot? How good is the shot? If you and your teammates go onto the court and have a shooting contest, who wins?

“I feel like I win,” Hairston says.

If he becomes a maker, the Hornets do too.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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