Heading into 2021-22, the Portland Trail Blazers had one of the NBA’s higher retention rates, with 76 percent of last year’s roster returning, particularly among the top half. Having the “run it back”mentality as a first-round out doesn’t generally yield positive results, but it did guarantee one thing: it meant Portland’s younger, unproven talent needed to reach a new level in their development.
Three games in, Nassir Little appears more than up to the challenge.
The partnership between Little and Chauncey Billups got off to an excellent start, with the first-year head coach referring to him as the “best athlete” on the team, a sentiment that would have meant nothing if left only to dunk montages in practice or Twitter highlight reels. Through both faith and necessity following Norman Powell’s injury, Little ranks fifth in both minutes per game (25.0) and total minutes (75). The former Tar Heel has rewarded the coaching staff by starting swimmingly, averaging 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 steals, and 0.7 blocks on 55-44-0 percentage splits, all of which are career-highs, except for, you know, the free throw percentage.
Little’s athleticism will always be what jumps, literally, off of the screen first. But his success in shooting the 3-pointer has been a pleasant surprise. He’s hoisted nine attempts already, hitting four. But it’s the comfort in which he’s shooting them that’s been most noteworthy. Consider this one against the Clippers.
Most of Little’s future 3-point makes won’t follow this same method, given that Reggie Jackson commits one of the more unforgivable basketball sins in helping out of the strong side corner. But, in Little’s case, this is a positive development.
It could be overanalysis on my part, but here’s my thinking: early into the 2021-22 season, Little looks at ease catching and getting right into his 3-point motion and draining them. Three games in, he’s already hit 2-of-3 from that right corner. For what it’s worth, he hit a grand total of three of those in all of 2020-21.
And then, just to double down on that point, think about what hitting that shot consistently does for his playing time, even with Powell healthy. Portland’s offense features a heavy diet of those 4-on-3 situations after Damian Lillard pick-and-rolls, and having accurate snipers in those deep corners is of utmost importance.
For all of the criticism he accrues, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey is privy to this fact, as evidenced by this summer’s signings. If Little adds fiery competitiveness and energy on defense with a trustworthy corner 3-pointer, that’s the equivalent of finding forgotten money.
He also sprinkled in an inspiring, rhythm-dribble-into-a-shot 3-pointer late against the Clippers. (For the purposes of this article, that score is to be ignored at all costs).
Little’s spoken often about knowing precisely his role is — providing a spark off of the bench on both ends of the floor — on a team where both shot attempts, and subsequently, promises for more shot attempts are on the high end. The next step in Little’s development, perhaps, will be to hit more accurately on those midrange pull-ups, something he talked about on a Locked on Blazers Q&A a few days ago. But that’s likely a ways out; if Little has this same shot profile in say, February, and thus becomes a player you have to close harder on, the opportunities to show that further ability, which he has, will be there. In the meantime, it’s certainly worth observing that there’s a noticeable comfort in the ones he is taking now, such as the look off of double staggered screens that he hit against the Kings.
It’s also inspiring that Little hasn’t allowed the offensive responsibility to cut into his defensive vigor, either. Despite the small sample size, Little has had small spurts and moments against celebrated scorers such as De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker. It’s something he discussed in detail with Danny Marang of Blazer’s Edge on the Jacked Ramsays, making offensive life difficult for them. In the process, he’s become the Blazer with the most point of attack potential on defense.
And that goes without mentioning Little’s handful of plays that have already gone viral, such as the buzzer-beating putback to close the quarter against Phoenix, or his offensive rebound into a 3-point make that ignited the Blazers’ (eventually failed) comeback attempt. Little knows his role, and he’s executing it soundly.
The opening few weeks are always the honeymoon, ripe for overreactions. And, as evidenced by the Blazers’ 2-2 start, Portland remains more bark than bite, and, as I like to say, more chicken tender than championship contender. But, if we’re searching for silver linings despite Norman Powell’s injury, the work of Portland’s 2019 first-round pick is an ideal place to start. The name on the back of his jersey might say “Little,” but in short spurts to kickstart 2021-22, he’s come up somewhat big.