The Portland Trail Blazers just signed a future Hall of Famer in Carmelo Anthony, one of the most prolific scorers in league history. Despite his struggles in Oklahoma City and Houston, he might be the only hope for the Blazers to break out of their current slump and find someone who can shoot a basketball.
But even though he might seem like an obvious candidate to slide into the starting lineup immediately (as he already has for two games), there’s one player that has in just a few short weeks endeared himself to Rip City fans: Nassir Little.
Little plays with an infectious energy that has absolutely been needed this season. He fights relentlessly for 50/50 balls, literally springs over opponents to grab rebounds and possesses athleticism unparalleled by anyone else on the roster. There’s a reason he was Mom’s favorite -- and plenty of other fans’ favorites -- last week.
Little is far from perfect. He can’t create a shot for himself and opponents don’t even have to think twice about respecting him. He’s shooting an egregious 39% from the floor and 23.5% from three. He gets exposed defensively, as Monday’s game against James Harden showed (though who can honestly guard him right now). But despite all this, even as Carmelo’s shadow lingers over him, Little should start for Portland. Here’s why:
Starting Little will give Melo time to adjust
I know, Melo laughed at the thought of coming off the bench just two years ago. But he’s two years older now, hasn’t played professional basketball in almost a year, and now has to adjust to a whole different system. The expectation shouldn’t be that Melo can be plugged into the starting lineup right away and immediately be effective.
That first game against New Orleans showed that it should take time for him to adjust to the system. He went 4-of-14 with 10 points and five turnovers. Everything on the Blazers becomes more difficult when Damian Lillard isn’t playing, but he still struggled to get into a rhythm offensively and wasn’t exactly a stalwart defensively. His second proved to be better stat-wise at least.
It’s not fair to put pressure on Anthony to be Hoodie Melo after not playing basketball professionally for a year or so. Dan Sheldon of NBC Sports Northwest pointed out that Melo has plenty more to learn.
How far does Carmelo Anthony have to catch up?— Dan Sheldon (@DanSheldon620) November 20, 2019
CJ said that Melo memorized 5 plays with the coaches this morning.
The Blazers have 100 plays + counters.
He’s not going to learn that many plays in a week. It takes time, and playing off the bench gives him that time.
Plus, a bench role could be a win-win theoretically for both the Blazers and Anthony. The Blazers can bring in a scoring option at the wing that is significantly more versatile offensively than anyone else they can bring in off the bench (Anthony Tolliver’s playing time is dwindling unless there’s too many injuries while Mario Hezonja and Kent Bazemore are both shooting under 40% from the field sans the Little energy). Anfernee Simons is the only truly respectable offensive option offensively off the bench, and as special as he is, having someone like Melo can go a long way towards taking some pressure off of Simons.
It gives Little invaluable experience
If the revelation of Simons this year is anything to go off of, then it might be that maybe a rookie doesn’t have to play that much in his rookie season to be effective in his sophomore campaign. But Little isn’t nearly as skilled offensively as Simons, and getting him more and more experience to develop and understand the speed of the NBA game is important.
He’s gotten better the more he’s been out on the floor. In his first four games seeing significant playing time he averaged 7.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and shot a pretty dreadful 32% from the field (14% from three). In his last game against the Pelicans (where he didn’t start but still saw significant minutes) he had 12 points and 11 rebounds on 5-of-6 shooting with two made threes.
Little has started to figure out what he can do to impact a game in the playing time he’s got. It’s not just his effort; it’s how he chooses to exude that effort. Nate Mann, our very talented and much smarter writer, points out the kinds of plays that Little can make.
Little doesn't space the floor well, but if he keeps making these reads and cleaning up missed shots, it'll help make up for that lack of outside shooting pic.twitter.com/kz77aWqLjZ— Nate Mann (@nate_mann13) November 20, 2019
Plays like this are ones that other players on the roster aren’t making. It’s something that has been missing from the Blazers all season. Finding a player willing to do that dirty work and then not rewarding him with more playing time/a starting role feels like a mistake.
Options are honestly limited and he’s been most promising
Stotts has experimented with plenty of lineups so far. After Zach Collins went down with his shoulder injury against Dallas he’s had no choice but to try and figure out who can play the 4 for them. Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver have proven to be net negatives so far. Starting Kent Bazemore alongside Hood has had mixed results.
Little has had the most promising returns out of the previously mentioned players. The eye test tells you he plays harder than all of those guys and makes up for any deficiencies in skills with effort. He has a better average +/- then all of those players as well as the benefit of being younger.
The ball actually moves when Little is on the court as opposed to other guys. The Blazers are trying their darnedest it seems to move the ball as little as possible, only averaging 18.7 assists per game as a team this season. As Team Mom pointed out, Little moves the ball more than most other role players. He averages 28.5 passes, tied for fifth on the team. It’s significantly more than the other Blazer’s role players, and well, let’s just say Carmelo isn’t known for dropping dimes. The team hasn’t had less than 24 assists in games that Nassir Little has played at least 23 minutes.
In Conclusion, free Nasty Nas
Little is as raw as the beef wellington from a well-meaning but incompetent chef on Hell’s Kitchen. There’s a lot more X’s on this shot chart than O’s:
Yeah, that’s not pretty. And his defense is far from perfect too. But no Blazer plays as hard, fights for as many rebounds or shows more promise (outside of Simons) than Little.
The Blazers are desperate. Zach Collins was never supposed to be injured for as long as he has been. Olshey’s “reclamation projects” if you want to be harsh are not panning out. The rookie out of North Carolina once touted as a top five prospect has outplayed all of them. Even with Melo coming in, Little deserves to start.