While Malik Hairston arrived on campus with all the requisite fanfare of a McDonalds All-American, his freshman season didnt exactly turn out the way many had expected it to. His immense talent was clearly on display in flashes, but his stated desire to Carmeloize the Oregon program never panned out. The young Ducks floundered over the second half of Pac-10 play, and Hairston never developed into that consistent go-to scorer that the program needed. At times he was spectacular; at others, he was nonexistent.
Many had hoped to get a feel for Hairstons game over the summer, but an injury forced him to pull out of the national U-21 team trials. The season started quietly for Hairston, as he failed to reach 20 points in any of Oregons first four games. Then came a 25-point outburst against Vanderbilt, in which Hairston truly carried his team. He hit 4 3-pointers, grabbed 10 rebounds, and didnt commit a turnover in 36 minutes. Perhaps this was the performance that would jumpstart Malik Hairstons career?
The encore performance would come against a Georgetown team that was clearly still attempting to find itself after an encouraging first season for head coach John Thompson III. Known for a slow, deliberate pace and tough halfcourt defense, the Hoyas were sure be a stiff challenge Hairston and the entire Oregon team.
Georgetown came out in a zone. Hairston immediately began to attack it, though not in the way you might think a big-time scoring wing would. On the first possession of the game he received the ball in the mid-post, in an attempt to take advantage of his size against the shorter Hoya backcourt. The double team quickly came, and Hairston quickly found a Duck teammate for an open 3-point look. On the next possession, Hairston once again found himself in the lane with the ball, and dumped it off to a streaking Marty Luenen for a dunk. This would be a theme throughout the game. Hairston was able to get a step on his defender nearly at will, but almost always passed the ball to an open teammate as soon as he drew an extra defender.
While you have to admire such unselfishness from such a clearly talented player, Hairstons willingness to let go of the rock isnt always a good thing. Many pundits have bashed Hairston for a lack of intensity, and while I think that conclusion is unfair, it is very obvious that the sophomore hasn't quite figured out how to step up and carry a team. I would deem it a lack of assertiveness. Hairston has a tendency to stay in one place on the offensive end, and while this was exacerbated on this afternoon by the zone defense he was seeing, it is clear that he would rather be set up by his teammates than attack offenses on his own. This willingness to defer to teammates and blend into the offense was blatantly obvious against Georgetown, as Hairston didnt even attempt a shot until the 4:20 mark of the first half.
By this time, Oregon had had watched a 12-4 lead disintegrate into a 17-13 disadvantage. In between Hairstons dish to Luenen and his first points of the game, it was as if he wasnt on the court. His teammates ignored him during this stretch, and when Hairston did get a rare touch on the wing, he was content to simply reverse the ball and go back to standing on the weak side. With Hairston a complete non-factor, the Ducks managed 11 points in approximately 15 minutes.
Then, out of the blue, Hairston decided to attack. First, he rose above a host of bodies to tip in Aaron Brooks errant 3-point attempt. Then, it was a beautiful contested 3-pointer from the right wing. A Hoya defender was in his face, but he might as well have been sitting on the bench. The release was silky smooth, and the ball seemed to hardly disrupt the net. On the following possession, Hairston put the ball on the floor for the first time, blowing by his defender, laying it in, getting fouled, and adding the free throw. Just for the record - Oregon without Hairston: 15 minutes, 11 points. Oregon with Hairston: 8 points, 1 minute, 39 seconds.
The second half proved to be a mirror of the first for Hairston and the Ducks. Hairston once again displayed a willingness to play within the offense and get his teammates involved. He drove and kicked on numerous occasions, and made several nice post entry passes. He nailed another 3-pointer from well beyond the college line early in the half, and Georgetown defenders resorted to fouling him on his dribble drives as the game wore on.
Unfortunately for Oregon, this strategy ended up working quite well, as Hairston couldnt hit his free throws. In one sequence, Hairston went behind his back, blew by his defender, and pulled up in the lane for a midrange jumper. The help defense fouled him, but he missed both of his freebies. Hairston managed to get his own rebound on the miss, and immediately found a slashing Chamberlain Oguchi, who drew a foul. On the night, Hairston finished 2-7 on his free throws. He had shown an improved touch from the charity stripe this season, but last years putrid 47% showing indicates that Hairston has a lot to work on in this area.
Defensively, Hairston displays quick hands and has a knack for anticipating lazy passes. He is a very stingy one-on-one defender, but isnt aggressive when it comes to shifting over to help his teammates. There were several instances in this game where Hairston could have made it much more difficult for an opposing player to score, but instead chose to watch because it wasnt his man with the ball. This tendency applies to Hairstons overall mentality. He is very aggressive when he is immediately part of a play (when he has the ball in a scoring situation, when the man he is defending has the ball, when a loose ball is directly in front of him), but is very passive, appearing almost uninterested, when he is away from the ball.
The Hoyas slowly pulled away in the second half, and Hairston concluded his scoring with another 3-pointer just before the 4-minute mark. According to my tally, Hairston was perfect from the floor until a desperation 3-point airball in the closing minutes.
On the afternoon, Hairston officially finished with 17 points on 6-8 shooting, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 turnovers in 35 minutes. It must be said that something good happened almost every time Hairston got a touch on the offensive end and actually attempted to make something happen. His teammates didnt help him out by converting on his drive and kicks, but his ability to draw the double team got the Hoya zone moving, and eventually led to an Oregon basket on at least half a dozen occasions.
However, Hairstons effort was marred by his inability to get good shots. His natural passiveness certainly contributed, but I would also point the finger at his teammates and coaches. Aaron Brooks started the game by repeatedly looking for his other teammates, and Hairston watched his fellow Ducks combine to shoot 33% from the floor. Ernie Kent was apparently content to let Georgetown dictate the tempo of this contest the entire way, and never once made a visible effort to get Hairston more involved in the offense despite his teams inability to put points on the board.
In conclusion, it is clear that Malik Hairston is a very special player. Contrary to popular opinion, Hairston isn't a standout athlete at the NBA level. However, he does have quick hands and a deadly first step. These attributes have allowed him to master a very effective offensive game in which he is as good at creating for others as he is for himself. The one thing that would have been nice to see in this contest was a few more in-between looks, but Hairston chose to pass the ball to the open man rather than force the issue off of the dribble. In the past, we have seen Hairston effectively create his own shot in the midrange.
The significant wrinkle to the sophomore version of Malik Hairston appears to be the added range on his jumper. Where last season he was forced to create off the dribble much more, this season he looks very comfortable spotting up behind the arc. As long as he continues to hit the 3-point shot at an effective clip, Malik Hairston ranks amongst the most complete offensive players in the nation.
To seal his status as a future lottery pick, Hairston must find a way to become more assertive on the offensive end. Given the state of this Oregon team, there is no excuse for Hairston not to be getting 20 shots per night. Despite displaying go-to type offensive ability literally every time he touches the ball, Hairston hasnt been established as the teams lead threat. While one certainly has to wonder if Oregon is the right place for Hairston to display his immense talent, he can help himself by attacking defenses more regularly, and demanding the ball in scoring situations.
Hairston is on the verge of becoming a truly special prospect. Despite playing for a non-national power on the west coast, all it will take is a bit more assertiveness for Malik Hairston to hear his name called very early on draft night 2006.