The 2019 NBA Draft was a roller coaster for Portland Trail Blazers first-round pick Nassir Little. He fell past the top three, where he was projected to go before a tumultuous season at the University of North Carolina. He fell out of the top ten, where most pre-draft projections had him tabbed. He fell out of the lottery, past rebuilders and contenders. He nearly fell out of the first round altogether before Portland scooped him up at No. 25, a far cry from where his draft stock had him pegged just eight months prior.
Scouts and front offices throughout the league were clearly divided on Little’s future – I talked to one Eastern Conference scout in Las Vegas who had him in the top five, ahead of players like De’Andre Hunter and Darius Garland. Another Western Conference front office executive had Little much further down his team’s list, in the high 20s. Clearly, the league as a whole was closer to the latter evaluation than the former, as Little would have gone much earlier in the draft had he been in more teams’ top tier.
Who was right and who was wrong about Little’s evaluation will be proved out over the next several years. He’s going to do everything in his power to prove himself to be better than the 24 players selected ahead of him. The crux of his career will come down to translating the obvious physical and technical attributes to the court, which has long been an issue for him.
Put Little in a one-on-one drill or watch him go through an individual workout and you’ll come away thinking he’s a surefire star. In pre-draft workouts, he knocked down threes off the catch and off the bounce. He went right through fellow draft prospects in offensive drills and stonewalled them on the other end with his immense combination of strength and quickness. In the open floor, he moves fluidly with or without the ball.
The issues arise when it comes time to deploy those skills in a team setting. Some of the skills translate easily, particularly in isolation defense, but for the most part, NBA basketball has as much to do with what goes on between the ears as anything else. This is where Little’s game falls and what tumbled him down draft boards. His basketball IQ lags behind his physical and technical traits and without significant improvements in this area, he’s going to have trouble even living up to his draft slot at No. 25.
Problems with his impact on the team game manifested themselves in Las Vegas, though better players than Little have struggled in Summer League and went on to be just fine. He had a rather lackluster four games in the desert and finished up with just 3.3 points per game, 3.3 rebounds, and 33 percent shooting in four games and 70 minutes on the floor. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with under-performing as a rookie in Summer League, but when taken in combination with the previous concerns about how his game would translate to the NBA, it’s a concern.
Long-term, Portland will bet on Little’s ability to consistently improve and his hard-working attitude to overcome these obstacles. Every indication from the pre-draft interview process is that he’s a great person and fully understands the holes in his game and what must improve in order for him to make a big impact on the league. On the other hand, making improvements on tangible skills like ball handling, passing, and shooting or physical traits like speed and stretch is easier than the intangible issues like shot selection, aggressiveness, vision, and overall basketball IQ. Those intangible limitations and how Little improves upon them will define his career, for better or worse.