When Nassir Little joined the Portland Trail Blazers as a rookie last year, he came in as a notably raw prospect. He was an incredibly athletic player that didn’t lack energy, but he was a project prospect that needed refinement before entering the rotation player.
Fast forward to this season, and all the sudden Little’s development appears to have accelerated in one key area: shooting. As a result, he’s earned more minutes this year and transformed into one of the most consistent shooters on the team. He’s shooting close to 37 percent from three right now. That is a far cry from the struggles that Little endured as a rookie.
So how has he done it? What has changed over this past season for him to become a solid shooter? And is it sustainable?
Let’s start by noting that Little was a less-than-ideal shooter last year, even if it was a small sample size. He made only 23.7% of his threes last season. Granted it was only on 1.2 attempts per game, but still, that’s pretty bad.
That has changed significantly this season. In the month of February, his shooting exploded. He shot 54.5% from three on 2.5 attempts per game. That’s not a ton of attempts, but it’s a decent enough amount when you consider the minutes he’s currently getting. But as good as the overall numbers are, it’s the specific catch-and-shoot numbers that are truly impressive.
Little made 81.8% of his catch-and-shoot threes in February. I don’t really care that it was only on 1.2 attempts per game—if he’s making it, that’s all that matters. His numbers for the season as a whole are also solid. Currently, he is making 44.1% of his catch-and-shoot chances.
When a team has an elite offensive creator, it’s important to surround that creator with guys that can capitalize on open opportunities. That’s why it’s really important for a guy like Little to be able to consistently make these threes off the bench. Take a look at Little’s first three from his highest-scoring game this season against the Bucks.
There are three guys with their eyes on Damian Lillard. Those three guys are easily Milwaukee’s best players and arguably their best defenders. That’s the kind of gravity that Lillard has. He gets it to Little who drains the tough three. Could Little have gone to Gary Trent Jr. in the corner? Probably. But I like the confidence to just launch it here.
Here’s Lillard and Little doing it again. Little relocates to the corner as Lillard draws two defenders on the drive. Little recognizes that he needs to take a quick dribble behind the line, and drains it. It’s by no means a difficult three, but it’s one that’s important for Little to make.
The final assisted three comes off a handoff from Robert Covington. This is a common action that you can see the Blazers execute with Little. He takes the ball and rises up over Giannis Antentokoumpo who is, as you may know, very long. Little’s release isn’t always that fast; I’d like it to be a lot faster, to be frank. But he get’s it off quick here and makes it with Giannis closing out, which is no small feat.
It’s important to note that shooting isn’t just making shots from distance. Obviously there’s the mid-range, in-the-paint shots outside the restricted area, and a million other things that fall under that category. But Little has mostly avoided the mid-range area by sticking to shots either outside or in the paint. 53.9% of his shots have been from outside while 36% of his shots have come from within 10 feet.
Most of his shots from outside are coming from above the break as opposed to the corners, which is an interesting development. 40 of his 48 attempted threes have come from above the break while the other eight have come from the corners. All the threes shown in the videos thus far are classified as above the break, technically. He’s three for four from the right corner and zero for four from the left.
I want to see Little taking and making more of those corner threes, though. First of all, they’re the easiest three to make, so easy for NBA players that portions of NBA Twitter think that it’s probably best to either ban it or change the court’s dimensions. Second, it sets up the kind of play I want to see the Blazers enact more often: a high-low action where Little cuts in from the corner.
Here’s what I mean. It’s an old clip, obviously, but it’s the kind of action I envisioned Little doing with the likes of Jusuf Nurkic and Harry Giles. Now imagine that a defender has to worry about Little shooting in the corner. It opens up so much. A defender would have to either respect him as a cutter/shooter or respect the driver. It’s a catch-22 that plays right into the Blazers’ hands.
While he’s becoming more of a catch-and-shoot threat, Little still struggles with pull-up threes. That’s not a huge deal, really. The Blazers aren’t looking at Little as a player that needs to create a bunch for himself. Still, only 16.7% of his pull-up threes have gone in, indicating that he’s not quite there as a shot creator.
I don’t hate this shot. Partially, it’s because the game was out of reach, but more than anything I’m okay with it because he’s shooting the ball with confidence. That is what I really want to see. The only thing I would change is the outcome. It’s a skill that he hasn’t developed yet, but he’s feeling better about taking the shot at least.
Even with his struggles in mind, I still like the idea of Little eventually developing that outside creation, because this is what happens when it works. I like that shot at the end of the blowout loss to Phoenix last month. He tries to set up Damian Jones and gets him shuffling before he pulls up from the top of the key. I would love to see Little get comfortable making that kind of shot.
If he can set guys up in a way where they don’t know what he’s going to do, then he’s going to be more of a threat. It’s the same theory with the corner threes; the more things an opponent has to worry about, the harder you are to defend. If Nassir Little can dribble the ball down the court, get the matchup against a big like Jones, and suddenly have the option of either blowing by him or pulling up at the top of the key, then he becomes that much more valuable to Portland.
The last question worth addressing in regards to Little’s development is simple: is this real? Is Little actually a good shooter? I would say that it’s real, but only to a certain extent. I don’t think he’s a 40% shooter. It already looks like his percentages are dropping since he’s only at 19% shooting from outside in the month of March. But why can’t he be someone who shoots in the mid-to-high 30s? He has shot well and certain indicators (like a free throw percentage of 84.6%) show that he can keep getting better. This isn’t the most scientific determination, but this just feels real, even if it’s not the astronomical leap it seemed like it could be in February.
If he keeps shooting with confidence, there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue. He’s only 21 and has already grown as a player significantly since year one. You can go back to July before the bubble and find stories of Terry Stotts and others praising Little for his commitment to improving his shot. When that praise is more than empty noise and the results are visible, that means something. Little is becoming more than a raw talent.