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Charlotte Hornets rookie P.J. Hairston growing into role

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The numbers don't favor well for Hairston's rookie season, but his improvement of late suggests he is turning the corner, and he could become a key piece for the Hornets off the bench.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

I didn't understand the excitement that Charlotte Hornets rookie P.J. Hairston drew from fans every time he launched a 3-pointer at first.

"Look at his numbers!" I'd yell while tightly gripping a printed copy of Hairston's shooting numbers and waving my arms around in my living room.

However, I've realized Hairston draws excitement because of what he's capable of doing. A long-range shooter who can get hot at any moment is the type of player the Hornets lacked for many years, so when Hairston launches a shot, the crowd holds their breath because if he makes it, it could mean the start of a hot streak.

Unfortunately, there haven't been enough hot streaks this season. While we can agree that yes, I am a hater, let's also agree that Hairston's stats for the season do not do him any favors when categorizing him as a shooter:

GP Min FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% PPG
30 15.4 2.0 6.1 32.6 1.2 3.9 31.4 5.7

These numbers, particularly the shooting percentages, are below average for any player, let alone a shooter. Breaking down Hairston's shooting percentages further shows he doesn't even excel at any one kind of shot. (Note: The only numbers included were for play types where Hairston has attempted at least 10 shots.)

Play Type FG%
Spot Up 32.3
P&R Ball Handler 34.8
Transition 33.3

Statistics provided by Synergy Sports

As the numbers show, Hairston is below average no matter the context of the shot he's taking. Additionally, the only location that he's shooting greater than 40 percent is on transition shots from the left wing, where he's shooting 44.4 percent.

My biggest criticism of Hairston this season has been his shot selection. His role is to catch and shoot the ball, which is fine, but often these shots come with little thought as to whether the shot is a good one or not. Sure, it's exciting to watch him pull up for a 3-pointer on a fast break or launch a shot the first time he touches the ball in a game, but often these shots result in a wasted possession. Unless of course he makes it, which he hasn't done at high enough percentages this season. Overall, Hairston has been a pretty average shooter this season.

Now before I get written off as the hater that I am admittedly being, I also understand that he is a rookie, and unlike his fellow rookie Noah Vonleh (who is getting the chance to learn the game from the bench), Hairston has been asked at times to play roles outside of what he's capable of. He's started two games due to the Hornets' injuries, and with the struggles of other wing options at various times, Hairston has played significantly more minutes than was expected of him. There's been a lot of learning on the go, and it's shown. The good news he is starting to adjust to the NBA, and his numbers are improving as well.

Here are his January numbers:

GP Min FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% PPG
8 15.1 2.5 6.0 41.7 1.5 3.8 40.0 6.6

Reap those sweet shooting percentages. Hairston is shooting better than 40 percent for the month while playing the same number of minutes and taking the same number of shots. That's encouraging improvement, especially with the team playing better.

Defensively, Hairston's numbers haven't been great either, with opposing players shooting 43.4 percent from the field against him overall and 42 percent from the 3-point line. However, defense in the NBA has a steeper learning curve than offense, and Hairston has the size to be a capable NBA defender. As his offense has improves, I'd expect his defense to as well. The "eye test" shows that he can force a few turnovers and be a solid on-ball defender at times, but it's on defensive rotations where he can get lost.

We could also talk about this, but let's file that under "too small a sample size".

So what should Hairston's role be the rest of the season? For the most part, it should remain the same. A catch-and-shoot 3-point specialist is needed, particularly one that doesn't disrupt the offense. For all my griping, Hairston's game fits better with the Hornets' system than some of his more dribble-heavy teammates. There's no waiting around when he has the ball, he's either going to shoot it or to pass it off before looking to get open again.

Hairston is a more than capable NBA player, and his numbers are more reflective of his inexperience than how talented he is or isn't. His skill set could be very valuable to the Hornets long-term, and it's not out of the question to think he could turn into a Jamal Crawford-like shooter off the bench. Right now, though, he's still got a bit of a learning curve to get over.

Against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, Hairston was left on the bench as Kemba Walker returned after missing two games. Gary Neal was preferred, but Neal did not help his case of being part of the rotation moving forward, shooting just 1-of-4 from the field and 0-of-4 from the 3-point line.

Steve Clifford has shown a lot of faith in Neal this season, but he's also been unafraid to use Hairston as well, which makes me wonder if Hairston will replace him in the rotation if Neal doesn't turn it around soon. Hairston brings more size to the position than Neal, and as the numbers show, he is shooting much better than Neal this month. Hairston doesn't lack for confidence, and is willing to shoot even if there's just an inch of open space. If the shooting percentages stay up, he could prove to be a bit of X-Factor the rest of the season, which could be huge plus for Charlotte as they push for the playoffs.