CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina sophomore P.J. Hairston can’t help but smile -- and take a superstitious precaution -- when he hears fellow wings Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock discuss their rehabs-in-common.
“They always talk about each other’s knees all the time, so that’s kind of a funny thing,’’ Hairston said last week. “I’m always the awkward one, because I didn’t injure my knee. So I just knock on wood every time I’m around them.”
While Hairston has faced a more minor health issue this offseason -- a shoulder sprain sustained in a pick-up game that limited him for about three weeks -- his main concentration has been on, well, concentration.
After opening his freshman season by making 24 of his first 64 3-pointers (37.5 percent), the Greensboro, N.C., product -- known for his sharpshooting in high school -- managed to hit only 18.7 percent (14-for-75) of his 3s over his last 23 games. That includes a frustrating 2-for-13 effort during the NCAA tournament, where the Tar Heels lost in the regional finals.
“The drought, or whatever I went on -- I had never shot that bad before in my life,’’ he said. “It was just new to me, because I didn’t know I could go on a drought like that.”
Teammates were supportive during his shooting struggles, as was his family. Hairston allowed himself two days off after UNC’s loss to Kansas before he was back in the gym, trying to figure out what went wrong so it would not happen again.
He credits his mom, in particular, for pushing him to the right mental track this offseason.
“I just called her one day, asked her, ‘What do I need to do?’’’ Hairston said. “I was in the gym, I was doing everything I needed to do to get my shot right. She said, ‘You need to get your priorities straight, that has to be your No. 1 priority, other than school.’ She said, ‘You stay in the gym, get your shots up, get at least 500 shots up, but you have to do that yourself. … You’re grown now, you have to do these things on your own.’ And I thought about it, and thought, ‘She’s right.’”
As a result of his refocused priorities, he said his ballhandling had improved prior to his shoulder injury, and “my jump shot was looking pure. I was just confident about it.” (He was expecting to be able to play again last weekend.)
Working with new assistant coach Hubert Davis has helped, too.
“Knowing that he was one of the best shooters at the NBA, I kind of took every bit of advice from him,’’ Hairston said. “Because coming from a shooter to a shooter, he knows much more than I do about shooting, and shooter perfection. … He basically told me my shot looks good, I just basically have a habit of kicking my foot out sometimes, and that would cause my shot to be short. [He would tell me] stuff like that, and then I’d go back and work on it.”
Despite his struggles last season, Hairston is confident he’s still the best shooter on the team --something he knows McDonald and Bullock might take issue with. But the good-natured competition between the wings could serve the Tar Heels well.
With last year’s starting front line of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes expected to be first-round NBA draft picks later this month (as well as point guard Kendall Marshall), UNC’s most experienced players will be on the wing.
The prospect of being more perimeter-oriented is something that excites Hairston, especially now that his fellow wings’ knees are healed (in the case of Bullock and McDonald) and healing (Strickland).
And especially now that Hairston's shot is falling.
“Basically, we lost a lot of points,’’ he said. “But stepping up is going to be key.”
In case you missed it, here's last week's story on McDonald, who is back to 100 percent after redshirting last season. And Strickland, still healing from his knee surgery, is preparing to play more point guard.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.