Portland Trail Blazers rookie Nassir Little has had an interesting year. He was thrusted into the spotlight sooner than expected, with an injury to Zach Collins and the poor play of Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja necessitating Little’s presence. While it became clear that Little was a raw prospect, he showed flashes of what could be, putting on a display of great energy in spurts and even earning a starting spot in early games before Carmelo Anthony’s arrival.
With the NBA restart in Orlando creeping up and players like Trevor Ariza and Caleb Swanigan opting out of the restart, there’s a good chance we see more of Little in Orlando. Now the question becomes how can he help the Blazers.
Offensively, we’ve seen that his skills are...undeveloped at this point. Defenders often feel comfortable leaving him open on the perimeter, and for good reason. Little only shot 23% from three this year, well below league average. Almost all those threes came in catch-and-shoot situations, where he shot exactly 22%.
It’s not that his shot looks totally broken. Occasionally he’s able to hit the three either from the wing or the corner, and even on his misses the form usually looks good. His percentages even improved as the year went on: he shot 35% and 37% from three in January and February, respectively. But generally speaking, opposing teams are not worried at all about Little’s presence on offense.
He’s not much of a shot-creator for himself. A little over 75% of his field goals were assisted this year, including 68.6% of his shots inside the arc and 100% of his three-pointers. Most of his unassisted shots came on putbacks, which is something he seems to have a nose for.
One thing that’s been positive offensively from Little is his activity off the ball. He’s done an excellent job this year of setting up in the corner and waiting for his opportunity to cut to the paint. It’s something that should only improve, I think, if Jusuf Nurkic and Little find themselves on the floor together, with Nurkic’s superb vision for a big man helping him find Little early and often.
Little also does an excellent job of running the break, usually finishing on the other end with an exciting display of athleticism. They’re exactly the kind of energy/hustle plays that the Blazers need from their bench players.
Little is far from the first option offensively, but as the fourth or fifth scorer he’s been acceptable. He’s not particularly close to being a finished product, but he has some positive aspects to his game that, if utilized correctly, could make him more of a threat. Let him use his boundless energy as a cutter and fast break finisher and he can be quite useful. If his shooting improves like he talked about with Dan Marang, then he can suddenly become very valuable.
Defensively, Little has already shown some prowess. He’s got good size at 6’6” 220 pounds, and his 7’2” wingspan and explosive athleticism allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. He averaged almost a block and steal per game and was able to use his quick feet often to make it more difficult on opposing players.
The final box score from this game against the Raptors on Nov. 13 shows that Pascal Siakam had himself a game, finishing with 36 points on 53% shooting (Siakam was on a tear to start the season). But in what was undoubtedly a tough matchup in his first career start, Little was able to not let everything come too easy to Siakam. He does a good job of giving Siakam very little room to operate. Siakam is usually able to adjust, but even then Little’s long arms are able to make several shots more difficult for the Raptor.
If you watched the whole video you undoubtedly noticed how those arms, as well as his athleticism, allowed him to make that nasty block on Stanley Johnson. That one was more of the chasedown variety, but if you go through all his blocks you’ll find that Little has been able to swat opponents in a variety of situations.
His length and speed once again allow him to time that block perfectly on Alec Burks. Little has shown a propensity for making these neat plays off the ball. But on the ball he’s able to rack up the blocks too, once again making it difficult for defenders to get shots over him by getting his hands on the ball early.
And here’s one more block on Kyle Kuzma, both to show how Little once again uses his length and also just to see Kuzma get blocked.
The point is that Little possesses the tools to be an effective defender right now. He’s not perfect; there are plenty of examples of him not taking good angles resulting in a bucket for his matchup (just watch the Raptors video again). But partnering him with one of Zach Collins or Nurkic should help alleviate some of that pressure and give him some help defensively.
Overall, it’s the little things that make Nas a valuable player in the restart. He’s not going to be a top-three option offensively and he’s not a perfect defender, but he has the energy and physical tools to fill certain gaps in Portland’s schemes. If he sees significant minutes, all Portland will need him to do is keep the energy up in Orlando.