Nassir Little played significantly more basketball for the Portland Trail Blazers than expected this year. Zach Collins dislocating his shoulder in the season’s third game exposed the team’s void at power forward. Little quickly earned consecutive starts after failed experiments with Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver, but the inescapable signing of Carmelo Anthony returned the rookie to a limited bench role for the remainder of the shortened season.
In his first NBA campaign, Little played 48 of 66 games, including five starts. This provided the organization and its fans with extra on-court product to indulge in. Compared to Blazer’s Edge’s breakdown of him immediately after the draft, many aspects of his game are still the same, even 573 minutes of professional playing time later. That’s certainly not a bad sign, rather a warning that his development might not be the flip of a switch.
The ability to shoot three-pointers is virtually a must-have for wings in the current NBA. Among rookies who attempted more than 25 triples this year, Little ranked 40th out of 44 with a conversion rate of 23.7%. This is almost a carbon copy of his lone season at UNC; he shot 14/52 in college and 14/59 with the Blazers.
Because Portland’s centers don’t space the floor, it’s difficult for Coach Terry Stotts to add another non-shooter to the mix. Little and Whiteside often shared the paint when on the floor together, otherwise defenders abandoned Little on the arc to play help defense. A lot of defenders, a lot of missed foul calls, and a lot of turnovers happen when two front court players pack the key.
When Little did stay on the perimeter and receive a kickout pass, he took too long to get the shot off. Upon catching the ball, he lowers it to below his waist as part of his shooting motion, providing plenty of time for his defender to recover and contest.
Little’s court awareness enabled him to produce on the offensive end without clogging the paint or relying on too many threes. He frequently identified open lanes to fill from the corner, leading to a montage of dunks. When his teammates missed the opportunity to pass and instead hoisted up a bad shot, Little was still in position to grab the offensive rebound.
Nearly 70% of Little’s shots in the restricted area, where he’s the most effective by an immense margin, were assisted. Like in college, he didn’t display the ability to beat a defender one on one off the dribble. Fortunately, he isn’t losing handle by trying too many dribble moves, but his athleticism is no longer enough to easily pass defenders. He’s also unable to search for open teammates and open shots simultaneously. Only when defenders completely shut down any shot opportunity does Little search for a bailout pass.
He also has a tendency to shy away from contact on drives by double pumping or trying underhand finishes. As a 6-foot-5, 220-pound forward, he needs to invite contact and earn trips to the line, rather than throwing up acrobatic, low-percentage layups.
His passes also become predictable once his dribble is no longer live, leading to turnovers.
Even against superior athletes in the NBA, Little showed he could still defend multiple positions thanks to his long wingspan and speed. He can keep up with guards trying to drive by him off the dribble, as well as absorb contact from fours in the post.
Those traits make him a talented on-ball defender in pick and roll situations. Portland will have Jusuf Nurkic and maybe Whiteside next year, and their presence in the paint on drop coverage encourages the ball handler to pull up early. Little has the verticality and length to contest these shots without fouling, even when stuck behind the shooter. Sans Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, the Blazers could use another lanky defender to disturb pick and rolls.
An overlooked but vital aspect of Little’s game is his knack for winning 50/50 balls. He hustles on the offensive and defensive glass and collects loose balls with fervor. Every team benefits from a player who constantly hustles, and Little has proven capable of filling such a role.
Nonetheless, Little doesn’t always need to seek defensive rebounds. Nurkic and Whiteside rarely leave the paint and are therefore almost always in position to secure the miss. If Little’s matchup is on the perimeter when a shot goes up, he should look to run in transition. He’s an open-court athlete, so increasing fast break opportunities should get him more buckets.
The Blazers can pair Little with either Rodney Hood or Trevor Ariza off the bench next year to form a defensively dynamic front court. After a horrendous year on defense, the Blazers should give playing time to anyone who can stay between his matchup and the hoop.
To earn more consistent minutes, however, Little must improve his outside shooting. He became invisible on offense too many times this season due to defenders ignoring him on the perimeter. His free throw percentage, an indicator of shooting ability, was 63.6% as a rookie, down from 77% in college. Hopefully that percentage jumps back up in his sophomore campaign to settle any doubts surrounding his shooting.
Generating more transition possessions by leaking out or letting the guards rebound the ball should benefit Little’s offensive production as well. Fast break opportunities have been infrequent for the Blazers the last several years, but minor changes can initiate more of them.
He has the defense and athleticism, as well as the chance, to carve out a reserve role for himself next year. Whether he joins the nightly rotation or remains in and out of the lineup comes down to his shooting.