Nassir Little enters his third NBA season with just enough hype to boost his confidence, but not too much that he’s crippled by pressure.
After putting a list of injuries and ailments behind him, the young Portland Trail Blazers wing looks to be in the best shape of his young career with many pundits anticipating 2021-22 as his year to shine.
On paper, Little has the physical gifts to not only stick as a rotation player but thrive as an above-average starter.
I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to compare him to the former Blazer Gerald Wallace. Athletically, Little has ability to get to the rim, finish, and have that finish resonate with the opponents left looking ridiculous below him.
On the defensive end, his physical features come to the fore, standing 6’6 with a 7’1 wingspan and enough muscle to topple 10 titans in a tug of war tussle.
Great hops, decent lateral movement and natural defensive instincts allow him to not only guard at small forward but also shooting guard and power forward.
Finally and most importantly, his three-point shot looks improved, well, as improved as it can be when guarded by absolutely no one.
Drafted 25th in 2019, Little was initially billed as a lottery pick but struggled for consistency off the bench in his sole year at North Carolina.
Once with the Blazers, Little was faced with a list of injuries including a concussion suffered during practice in the Orlando Bubble. The concussion preceded dehydration issues before he contracted a nasty case of COVID late last year, resulting in him losing 20 pounds in a month.
He finally returned to the court in the new year, increasing his presence and court time, which culminated in an eye-popping performance against the Milwaukee Bucks on February 2. Little recorded 30 points on five of seven from three, along with six rebounds and two blocks in a blowout Blazers loss.
Unfortunately, that same afternoon he fell in an incident with Thanasis Antetokounmpo, prompting him to miss another five games. He returned and offered honest contributions for the remainder of the regular season but only saw nine minutes during the Blazers’ first round loss to the Denver Nuggets.
The offseason had arrived and it was time for a fit Little to get to work. However, Blazers fans were initially robbed of seeing the fruits of his labor when the 21-year-old was pulled out of Summer League, perhaps suggesting he’d done enough to impress new coach Chauncey Billups.
As we approach the 2021-22 season, Little’s position in the rotation is still up for grabs with Larry Nance Jr., Anfernee Simons, and Cody Zeller guaranteed minutes off the bench. As a result, it appears he will have to initially compete with Tony Snell for that ninth spot.
Yesterday, The Athletic’s Jason Quick wrote about the Blazers picking up Little ‘s fourth-year $4.17 million option for the 2022-23 season while suggesting Little might have the early lead over Snell, who is dealing with a minor foot issue.
Billups praised the young wing, naming him as the “best athlete we have” and likening him to Los Angeles Clippers wing Terence Mann who enjoyed his breakout performance under Portland’s rookie head coach last season.
Let’s look ahead.
What happens if Little proves to be uninspiring this season?
Not much: he returns to the Blazers third string brigade, made up of Ben McLemore, Greg Brown III, CJ Elleby, and one of Marquese Chriss, Patrick Patterson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Quinn Cook.
Breakout season means different things to different people, there’s breaking out and then there’s breaking out.
What happens if Little continues to improve as expected?
If Little exhibits the same improvement Simons showed in year three he’ll comfortably own the role of second or third player off the bench. He’ll play just under 20 minutes a night, averaging around 10 points a game continuing to battle Snell for minutes.
Little may also fill in as a starter when Powell is injured or unavailable, resulting in similar expectations in improvement next summer, but this time working towards restricted free agency.
What happens if Little seriously breaks out?
This second scenario sees Little not only make the rotation but ultimately deserving starter-level minutes. He becomes a threat on both sides of the ball, living up to that 30-point performance on a consistent basis. Simply, he becomes prime — or close to prime —Wallace.
Sorry — Gerald Wallace with a shot. Let’s remember Wallace was a great player but shot just over 31 percent from three. Last season, Little improved to 35 percent and if reports of a productive offseason are to be believed, that number could soar.
This team hasn’t had someone with Little’s physical attributes at the wing position since Wallace; Nicolas Batum was athletic but didn’t possess the same level of strength.
If that does happen, the Blazers have options in the summer of 2022. The team currently has a shooting guard starting at the small forward position in Norman Powell, and at starting shooting guard, they have a combo guard who is not big enough to play the two and only nearly a point guard in CJ McCollum.
The “trade McCollum” roars have been the loudest this offseason but clearly they haven’t reached President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey who refuses to deal the Lehigh standout.
I’m suggesting that a real breakout Little season backs Olshey into a corner. Olshey rarely trades his guys, and while I know Gary Trent Jr. was shipped off at the deadline, there was a clear logjam at his position.
Conversely, Little is a rarity for the Blazers and if he makes that jump he becomes the team’s most impactful starting small forward since Batum was shipped off to the Charlotte Hornets.
Is that enough to push Olshey to pull the trigger on a McCollum deal? I have all my fingers and toes crossed.
Playing Powell at the two and Little at the three allows Portland to play bigger at the wing positions while adding a decent player(s) in return for McCollum. This edges closer to what the Blazers should be working towards: balance.
Just to be clear, Little is not the next Kawhi Leonard. He does, however, own the physical tools to be a good starter-level player in this league.
I loved Gerald Wallace as a player, but he was almost strictly a slasher and high-energy player. Little has that same ability plus a workable three-point shot, opening up all kind of possibilities in today’s NBA.
At 21, it might be too early for him to put it together, but if he does, this team addresses needs that have gone unfulfilled since LaMarcus Aldridge left in 2015.
The Blazers have the longest playoff streak in the league, but it means nothing when you become first-round fodder for the other seven Western Conference teams fighting for a title. A near All-Star level Little isn’t as crazy as we once might have thought and opens up opportunities to help address this team’s imperfections.
Little could be the ticket to balance if Olshey is prepared to part with his golden child CJ McCollum.