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Will Nassir Little Grow Into the Wing the Blazers Need?

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Little’s rookie season showcased exciting potential, as well as areas to improve.

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Houston Rockets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Portland Trail Blazers are in dire need of a wing. All you need to do is scan this very website for all the mock drafts and trade concoctions that result in Portland getting someone who slots neatly into the forward spot. Our own Dave Deckard even tried to create the perfect Blazer trade earlier this month.

An interesting option for the future is Portland’s very own Nassir Little. The forward got more playing time than we’ve come to expect for a rookie on a Terry Stotts-coached team, playing almost 12 minutes a game in 48 contests this season. He displayed a certain amount of energy and explosiveness that was seemingly lacking at times from the rest of the lineup. We didn’t get to see much of Little in Orlando — he suffered a concussion in a late-July practice and experienced a syncopal episode during a shooting exercise in August — but the rumors were that he had spent many hours in the gym after the suspension of play trying to improve.

The last time we saw Little, he was a raw talent who didn’t have the refined skills necessary to earn consistent minutes for Portland. So what does he need to do next season to earn those minutes and play his way onto the floor?

Little’s greatest impact this season was, undoubtedly, on the defensive end. Yes, the Blazers’ defense was very bad this year, but Little showed a commitment to playing on that end of the floor. As Steve Dewald put it, Little plays with a “Tasmanian-devil-like energy,” and that’s reflected in his per 36 numbers, where he averaged almost a block and a steal per game.

This is a good example of the chaotic energy Portland needs from him. He has a good read on what Russell Westbrook wants to do here and disrupts the play with a deflection. He then immediately starts sprinting down the court, gets the ball and finishes the and-one. It’s the kind of havoc that Little needs to wreak for Portland, especially if it leads to fast break opportunities. Remember: the best offense is early offense.

Little is only about 6’6” (some websites have him as short as 6’5”), but he’s got a 7-foot-2-inch wingspan that helps him cover the small forward and power forward position consistently. He’s no skinny minnie either at 220 pounds, so he’s not as easy to push around as other lanky forwards.

Brandon Ingram is an example of a very lanky person who also happens to be quite good at basketball. He’s not an easy player to guard, and most of the time he finishes that layup. But Little is able to stay connected at the hip, rise up with him and get the block. Ingram’s got an even longer wingspan than Little at 7’3”, but Little is able to almost pin it to the backboard with his combination of strength and length.

As always, there’s room for improvement. The biggest thing for him will be getting better at recognizing what’s happening on the floor when he’s on defense. Rarely is a rookie super good defensively right off the bat (Lu Dort and Mattise Thybulle are the exceptions that prove the rule), and Little already showed he has the physical tools to survive. He’ll hopefully start to thrive as he learns more about how NBA offenses work.

All the defense stuff is important, but what really matters for Little is his offensive development. The numbers aren’t pretty on that end. He shot 43% from the field overall, but made just 23.7% of his threes. He made just under 64% of his shots at the free throw line and had a true shooting percentage of 50.5%. It’s an area where he clearly needs to improve in order to be truly successful.

Nassir Little Shot Chart

There were some positive takeaways on offense this season. He finished 64% of his shots at the rim, a solid number for a rookie. He mostly stuck to analytically sound shots, with 85% of his total field goal attempts coming from either at the rim or from outside the arc. His shot even started to improve as the year progressed, with his three-point percentage rising to 35% and 37% in January and February. These are all things you want to see from a rookie talent: positive progression and an understanding of what role he’s best suited to play.

I talked about this back in July when he was expected to play more in Orlando, and it’s worth reiterating that there were tangible things he did on the court that helped the Blazers. There were three things he did on offense that were great: he ran the floor well on the break, he was active off the ball, and he attacked the rim hard.

This is a pretty straightforward dunk compilation that shows him doing all three of these things and a little more. He attacked the rim hard, found the open spaces where guards could dump it off to him (especially in the short corner), filled the correct lanes on the fast break, and hunted the ball for offensive rebounds. Those are all good things, and what personally gets me extremely excited is the idea of Jusuf Nurkic finding Little cutting along the baseline repeatedly for open dunks.

But Little still needs more than vicious dunks, and the best thing he can do is improve his outside shooting. It sounds like he’s already on his way with that; Little talked to our very own Dan Marang back in July about his improvement while Stotts also praised the work he put in during the suspension of play. All of those things sound great, and I would’ve loved to have seen what that looked like in Orlando.

One of the spots on the floor Little needs to improve from is the corner three. One of the reasons Trevor Ariza was valuable to Portland this season was because he coupled competent defense with excellent shooting, making 40% of his shots from outside during his time with Portland. Specifically, Ariza owns the corner spots, making almost 46% of his there. That consistent production from three is something the Blazers have lacked for a few years now at the wing, and Ariza changed that.

Little doesn’t have to make half his shots from the corner, but he has to do better than what he did. Little made only 18% of his threes from the corner. That’s a bad number from anywhere on the court, but it’s especially bad considering the corner three is theoretically the easiest shot to hit from outside. He’s good from above the break — hitting 38% of his shots from those areas — but the corner three would especially be valuable for Little considering how dangerous he is floating around the baseline. If he can leave defenses guessing as to what his next move is in that area, then he’ll truly be a threat.

But until then, we just have to appreciate what we got from Little. It was a rookie season where he flashed his potential and showed improvement throughout. He most likely won’t be the top option at the wing that Portland desperately needs, but that’s okay. Portland can keep hunting for that perfect fit while Little continues to grow as a rotation guy.