Like many people around the world, the Portland Trail Blazers’ Nassir Little had a difficult 2020. When the NBA restarted the season with the bubble in Orlando, Little didn’t have the chance to play due to a concussion and a syncopal episode. Then right as this season was starting to ramp up, he contracted COVID-19. It seemed like no matter what happened, Little couldn’t catch a break.
Fast forward to 2021 and Little is finally back to playing NBA basketball. The second-year forward out of North Carolina hasn’t had the chance to do much yet with the Blazers, but that’s about to change. Portland was already shorthanded with CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic both missing a significant amount of time, but with injuries to other wings like Robert Covington and now Rodney Hood and Derrick Jones Jr., the Blazers are running out of options.
Injuries always suck, but they also provide players with opportunities to prove themselves. Little can do just that for Portland. So as we start seeing more and more from Little, what are fair expectations for him? Let’s take a look.
There isn’t a lot to go off of from this year simply because Little hasn’t played a ton. Contracting and then recovering from COVID will do that to you. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder he played more than he has all season with 21 minutes, and even then he didn’t exactly stuff the stat sheet. Still, there were moments where Little showed what he can do.
Fast forward to the 3:35 mark in this video (sorry that it’s not a singular clip, it was difficult to find video of it). Here’s what was probably Little’s best defensive play from Monday. Little is already in the best position to defend Isaiah Roby and just has to slide over slightly to meet Roby at the rim. Little uses his impressive 7’2” wingspan to match Roby at the rim. You forget when watching that play that Little is only 6’6”.
Here’s a clip from last year that shows his ability to rise and block taller defenders consistently. Brandon Ingram is as lanky as they come and an All-Star talent — unlike Roby. Little does a good job of staying with him all the way to the rim. Even when Ingram rounds the corner, Little is still athletic enough to pin Ingram down.
Unfortunately for Portland, Little isn’t a lockdown defender. He’s more of an agent of chaos that helps energize the team by diving for 50/50 balls and jumping into passing lanes to force turnovers. So far, he hasn’t done that, as he hasn’t recorded a single steal and has only one deflection. Here’s a clip from the last piece I wrote about Little where he shows that kind of energy.
This is one of my all-time favorite plays from Little. Russell Westbook thinks he has an easy isolation set up here and Little disrupts it by stunting on him and using his long arms to disrupt the pass. That sets up the easy transition bucket for Little on the other end. Early offense is usually the best offense, especially for someone of Little’s athletic talents. The more he can do off the ball for Portland, the better, because the on-ball defense isn’t there yet.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a really swaggy guy with a silky smooth game at a young age. He’s tough to guard, but Little has to put up more of a fight in this situation. Gilgeous-Alexander pushes Little off and then glides by him pretty easily. Little still isn’t much of a one-on-one defender, especially not while getting his way back into game shape.
Here’s one more defensive play that I’d like to see Little approach differently. Why is he trying to take a charge here? This may just be me as someone who hates seeing charges in the first place, but I want to see Little challenge Justin Jackson at the rim here. If he has the strength to take on Isaiah Roby, he can certainly take on Jackson. It might just be another thing that comes with more time on the court, but I’d prefer to see it sooner rather than later. Hopefully the defense improves once his conditioning is up to par.
Offensively, Little hasn’t shown much this year. He’s never been an offensive dynamo, being such a raw talent. But he looked to be making real strides last season with his shot, making 35% and 37% of his threes in January and February of 2020 before the shutdown. It wasn’t a large enough sample that it forced defenses to take him seriously as a shooter (only 23.7% on threes in 2020), but it was progress.
Above is Little’s only made three of the season up to this point. It’s a garbage time three against what is one of the worst defenses in league history by defensive rating, but I like that he steps into the three confidently. He does a good job filling the space correctly and making it an easy pass from Harry Giles.
I like this play for two reasons. First off, it’s a transition bucket for Little, something that I really liked seeing him do because 1) it was the easiest way for him to score and 2) his dunks are fun. But the second and most prominent reason I like it is because of how he doesn’t just barrel into the paint forcing the action. He almost slows down on his way to the paint, assessing where Roby will be and opting for the reverse. The reverse layup is something that Little’s athletic talents allow him to do, and he took advantage here.
The other reason I like him processing what’s happening more slowly is because so far he seems to be rushing into actions. When the ball is in his hands, Little doesn’t always have a plan and tries to force things. Little isn’t much of an on-ball creator as it is, but especially not when he’s forcing things.
I’m not 100% sure what Little’s plan was here. Maybe Jarred Vanderbilt defending him tightly when the clock really should just be dribbled out affected him. But Little drives to the paint clearly expecting someone to be open on the wing. No one was there, and Little loses the handle and it’s a turnover.
This is another tough shot for Little to make. Aleksej Pokusevski is not a stalwart defender, but he is absurdly long. Little’s got a good vertical, but even this is too difficult a shot over someone as lanky as Pokusevski. Regaining confidence in your shot is important. Forcing tough mid-range jumpers over seven-footers is not the best strategy for accomplishing that goal.
Let’s end the clips on a positive. Here’s one last clip where Little decides to do his best CJ McCollum impression. It’s something that’s fun to see from Nas, but definitely not what I’d like to be the norm for him. It’s not something that will be a consistent part of his arsenal, but seeing those shots go in is a big confidence booster. Now we just need to see him do that with an open corner three.
Expectations are hard to establish with where the team stands right now. When you have only eight guys available to play, it’s a blessing to win just about anything. All Portland can hope for while guys get healthy is that players like Little step up and show they can be rotation pieces. Little already did that last year, but now he’s got to do it again while his team faces an uphill battle.
As of now, I just want to see Little playing hard and with confidence. I want him to be unafraid when taking that open three. I want him to become once again an agent of chaos, stunting on unsuspecting guards and forcing turnovers. I want him challenging guys that attack the rim. I want all these things because it’s Little in his most fun and productive form. 2020 was tough for Nasty Nas. I’m hoping 2021 goes at least a little better.