The Trail Blazers’ disappointing loss to the Nets supplied a beacon of hope: the insertion of rookie Nassir Little into the rotation. The athletic forward from North Carolina emerged to play 18 minutes after six consecutive games where he didn’t see the court. Little’s performance was far from perfect, but his energetic style was a welcome addition to Portland’s depleted forward rotation.
Banking on a rookie to fulfill a significant role is a departure from coach Terry Stotts’ typical style. Shaky returns from Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja might leave the Stotts with limited alternatives. Scant track record aside, now is it time to make Little a regular recipient of meaningful minutes.
Size and defensive versatility are two attributes that the Blazers are sorely missing. Little immediately addressed both problem spots when he entered the game on Friday. Guarding a red-hot Spencer Dinwiddie off a switch, Little held his own and forced the Nets guard into a contested three-point shot.
Offensively, Little relentlessly pursued open lanes and crashed the baseline in vintage Harkless-like fashion to give ball handlers an easy option.
In this clip, Little exploits an uncommitted rotation from Garrett Temple to finish at the rim:
YAMS ARE IN SEASON & NAS IS HUNGRY pic.twitter.com/pk7TKCcSKk— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) November 9, 2019
In this clip, Little snakes along the baseline to make himself available for a pass from Lillard, a movement the Blazers have sorely missed from their wings this season.
Little’s sample size is incredibly small, but the other options that the Blazers have utilized have hardly separated themselves from the pack. Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja have underwhelmed in the starting lineup.
Tolliver has averaged 16.9 minutes per game and the results have been less-than-ideal on the offensive end. The 34-year-old veteran has connected on 25 percent of his field goal attempts for a modest 2.9 points per game average. Hezonja, who was featured in the starting lineup against the Nets, has fared slightly better. The former Magic lottery pick is averaging 5.7 points per game on 32.7 percent shooting from the field.
Room for Improvement
Individually, Little looks the part of a player ready to undertake a sizable role. Like most rookies, Little’s struggles will come away from the ball. On defense, the former North Carolina standout must stick with his man and navigate sets that involve multiple movements.
When asked about Little’s performance after Friday’s result, Stotts mentioned defensive awareness in his comments.
“He had a lot of energy. I thought he made some momentum plays. I liked his athleticism, his dunks, he got the crowd into the game, got our bench into it. Down the stretch, he made some defensive mistakes which is tough for rookies out there, but for him to get his first real opportunity in an NBA game, I thought he really provided a spark.”
Outside of Stotts’ remarks regarding energy and defense, he made a point to mention that Friday’s game was Little’s first real opportunity. Little’s fit in the the rotation is equally balanced between his upside and the Blazers’ lack of alternatives. At three games below .500, it might be in Portland’s best interest to roll the dice on Little’s talent and potential.