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Little Brings Determination, Athleticism to the Blazers

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Tar Heel Blog writer and editor Brandon Anderson stopped by to share his thoughts on the Trail Blazers first-round pick, Nassir Little.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers’ selection of North Carolina Tar Heels forward Nassir Little and the 2019 NBA Draft is in the books. The Florida native’s surprising draft-night slide left fans scrambling for information. In an effort to get a better perspective on Little’s contributions in college, Blazer’s Edge contributor Steve Dewald spoke with Tar Heel Blog writer and editor Brandon Anderson.

Let’s get to the questions.

Steve: Let’s address the elephant in the room right out of the gate. Nassir Little was featured off the bench last year. What factored into his role? Was it the players in front of him, the coaching staff, or the raw nature of Little’s skill set?

Brandon: One name: Cameron Johnson. To make a long story short, Cam had surgery last summer because he had essentially had basketball-hindering ailments his entire college career. Once his surgery was complete, he was like a brand new player, and he was so good that it was hard justifying having Nassir Little start ahead of him. Coach Roy Williams is big on the best player being the one that gets to start the game, and so honestly, Little being featured off of the bench was just true to how Williams operates.

Steve: What is the most misunderstood part of Little’s tenure with the Tar Heels?

Brandon: This is going to sound weird, but I feel like the most misunderstood part of Little’s tenure is just how good he was. Everyone focuses on the fact that he started off the bench, that his numbers weren’t on par with Zion Williamson, and a lot of other noise. However, if you take the time to look at the numbers, he still had a pretty good season. He shot at a 47.8 percent clip, pulled down close to five rebounds per game, and he averaged 21.5 points per 40 minutes (if that’s a statistic that one takes stock in).

If we really want to break it down, Little’s problem during his time at Carolina was getting adjusted to how Roy Williams wanted him to play, coupled with bad luck. There were a few occasions where it looked like everything was starting to click for him, and then he’d get injured. By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, Little was arguably the best player on the floor for the Tar Heels. Then he came down with flu-like symptoms and struggled against Auburn. It’s easy for anybody outside of the program to think that he went to the wrong school or that he just wasn’t good, but the reality is that Little had a learning curve. Regardless of that curve, he always stood up to the challenge, but unfortunately luck was against him at various points during the season.

Steve: What was Little’s primary role, and do you feel like he filled it adequately? In the same vein, do you feel like those contributions will translate favorably to the NBA?

Brandon: His primary role with Carolina was to be the sixth man off the bench and provide the team with a spark. Roy Williams had him either play at the three or the four, usually spelling someone like Cam Johnson or Luke Maye. He did a good job at being a defensive presence for the team, and always played with a lot of effort. Naturally, his athleticism made him hard to deal with in the paint at times, and if teams spent too much time focusing on him it opened up things for outside shooters. I think he did a pretty good job filling his role, and I feel like he will only build upon what he was able to do at Carolina with the Trail Blazers.

Steve: Based on your season-long observations, what does Little need to focus on to reach his potential?

Brandon: Little’s jump shot was easily his Achilles’ heel during his time at UNC. Having seen him play a little bit during his high school career, it was puzzling that he struggled with his shot so much once he got to Chapel Hill. I think part of it is mechanics, and it already seems like he has improved this summer. I think the other part of it is just how difficult the college game was for him compared to high school, which he has been open about one a few occasions. I also feel like his basketball IQ needs to improve, and the rest is just a bunch of little things combining to produce big results down the road.

The one example that sticks out in my mind is that Little needs to realize exactly what he’s capable of with his level of athleticism. He was easily one of the most athletic players in the entire draft. If he wakes up one day and realizes how dominant he can be on both offense and defense just by imposing his will on the opposition, I think it’ll solidify just how much of a steal the Blazers got by drafting him.

Steve: We all saw Coby White’s reaction to Cam Johnson’s lottery status, what was your reaction to seeing Johnson selected in front of Little?

Brandon: I won’t lie, I was very shocked. While Cam Johnson was undoubtedly the better player this past season for UNC, nobody predicted that Cam would go any higher than the 20th pick. There’s definitely part of me that wonders what the thought process was in that decision, and unfortunately I haven’t had time to hunt down any information about it. Regardless, I’m really happy for Cam.

I felt bad for Little as he fell out of the lottery, but once I saw that he was going to the Blazers, I realized that there’s probably not a better team that he could’ve ended up on. Portland had a strong showing in the playoffs, has an amazing point guard in Damian Lillard, and the organization in general seems like they know what they’re doing.

Steve: Finally, what will you remember the most about Little’s time at UNC?

Brandon: I feel like what I will remember the most about Little’s time at UNC is how committed he was to the program, how humble he was, and also how amazing it was when he was at his best. He could have woke up everyday feeling like he made the worst decision in the world, but it was never like that with him. Whenever Roy Williams wanted him to do something, he just listened and did it. It sounds weird, but I also think that’s why Portland got themselves a winner. He’ll come in right away willing to learn, willing to give it everything that he has, and will never be afraid of the moment. I wish him all the best, and I’m sure Tar Heel Nation will follow him as close as possible throughout his NBA career.

Thank you to Brandon for taking the time to share his thoughts with Blazer’s Edge. You can read more of his work at Tar Heel Blog.