Jimmy Kelley is an ACC correspondent for Rush the Court. You can follow him on Twitter @DevilsinDurham.
The concept of the sixth man in basketball is based around an extremely talented player sacrificing minutes for the better of the team, knowing that his role is to lead the second unit and provide energy when the starters aren’t clicking quite the way they should. These players have a feel for the moment. They are like closers in baseball, waiting their turn to make a difference, with the best players coming through so often it feels automatic. Never someone you want to rely on but always a perfect ace in the hole, North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston has thrived in this role and his play has told the story of the Tar Heels’ season as well as any.
Hairston ranks third on the team in both scoring (11.9 PPG) and rebounding (4.2 RPG) and has been a perfect change of pace when replacing Dexter Strickland and his defense-first mentality in the lineup. A gifted scorer, Hairston’s play in relief of Strickland has been been one of the primary determinants of how the Tar Heels’ offense performs on a nightly basis. When Hairston is hot, the entire team benefits. Of the 17 games Hairston has played in this season — he sat out the 83-59 thrashing at Indiana — the Tar Heels have won 13 and are outscoring their opponents by just over 12 points per game. In those games Hairston’s scoring average jumps up a point to 12.8 per game, but in an odd twist, his minutes drop just a tad (from 20.2 per game overall to 19.4 per game) in those wins. With less time on the floor, Hairston has actually been more effective. His shooting percentage in those wins is 42 percent which is noticeably higher than his overall average (39 percent). A true sixth man, Hairston is at his best when operating at full speed in short bursts.