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Nassir Little is a Tricky Read for the Portland Trail Blazers

Is Little an exciting, young forward or potential trade filler?

Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

In an NBA season filled with strange ups and downs, few had a weirder campaign than Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little. After dealing with a bout of COVID-19 right as the season started, Little found himself playing sporadic minutes throughout the year. One night he would be expected to play 20+ minutes, the other he wouldn’t see time at all. It’s a hard thing for a second-year player to go through that kind of inconsistency.

That kind of performance can also can make a player harder to evaluate. Little is young; he only just turned 21 one this past February. He came into the league as a raw player and remains an unfinished product. Those kinds of players are usually worth keeping around for a while, but when you’re a team like the Blazers, you don’t have the luxury of time. Damian Lillard has put the pressure on the Blazers to win now after several early playoff exits. Lillard is done waiting; he’s ready to truly compete.

So where does that leave Little? Is he a part of this short-term future for the Blazers or is he just a piece to be tacked on for a trade in the coming months? Most importantly, based on how he’s played, would moving on or keeping him around be the right decision for Portland? Let’s dive into it.

Little played exactly 48 games this past season, the exact amount that he played in his rookie year. His base stats look eerily similar too. He averaged only one point more (from 3.6 to 4.6 per game), 0.4 rebounds more (2.3 to 2.7 a game), 0.2 steals more (0.1 to 0.3 a game), and the same number of blocks and assists (0.3 and 0.5 per game respectively). None of those numbers are anything to write home about.

The most notable improvement from last year to this year was his shooting. Last season, Little posted shooting splits of 43/24/64 (FG%/3P%/FT%), an abysmal line, to be honest. He shot much better this season, posting a slash line of 47/35/80. His true shooting percentage jumped up from a very low 50.5% to a much better 58.9%.

Little had a hot streak in February from beyond the arc. He made 54.5% of his threes throughout the month and posted an effective field-goal percentage of 72.5%. When you combined his hot streak with the constant stream of praise he was getting from his teammates and coaches, it really felt like enough to assume that the change in tide was real. I certainly felt so.

The opportunities the Blazers got Little were easy ones that he could capitalize on. Most of Little’s shots came from within 10 feet (37.1%). Right after that came catch-and-shoot opportunities. (34.7% of his attempted field goals were of that variety, and he made a decent 37.5% of those shots.) It’s a drop off compared to the 44.1% clip he was hitting those threes at when I wrote my article, but still, it’s about on par with other Blazers wings of the past.

The shooting improvement was nice to see, but it came on a VERY small sample size. He only shot 1.7 threes a game this season, which is not nearly enough to a) make a real impact outside of specific shots or b) turn the tide for your team offensively. His 80% clip from the free-throw line seems to bode for his shooting prospects, but even that came with only 0.9 attempts per game.

This is the problem with evaluating Nassir Little. His improvement on the offensive end is what’s most important to Portland, but we haven’t really gotten a chance to see whether he’s improving. He’s so uninvolved most of the time that it’s hard to get particularly excited about what he does when he’s on the floor. There just isn’t a lot of data to go off of.

Defense has been Little’s calling card so far. He’s shown a willingness to work hard on that end and a propensity for making a big block or hustle play. His block percentage of 1% actually put him in the 80th percentile among wings this past season. He managed to keep it high while cutting down significantly on fouls. His foul percentage dropped from 5.4% last year to 3.1% this year.

But does Little’s hard work on defense actually translate positively? That can be a difficult thing to evaluate. The truth is that the Blazers were all so bad on defense that it’s hard to look at the numbers and know who specifically is to blame. It’s hard to find a bad branch when the roots are a mess.

That being said, while the numbers certainly aren’t everything, they weren’t good for Little. His estimated defensive plus-minus sat at -3.8 at season’s end. That’s the third-worst number in the league and the second worst on the Blazers (Anfernee Simons was just slightly lower at -3.9). His defensive DARKO plus-minus was also bad at -1.1, one of the worst numbers on the Blazers.

The individual numbers are not great, and the team on/off numbers with him on the court aren’t fantastic either. According to Cleaning the Glass, when Nassir Little was on the floor, teams scored eight points more per 100 possessions, shot 2.9% better, and turned it over 2.1% less. Those numbers rank in the fifth, eighth, and seventh percentile respectively.

I wouldn’t chalk up these defensive struggles primarily to what these numbers say, mostly because of who he’s playing alongside. The most common lineup that Little was partnered with this season was one that featured Lillard, Gary Trent Jr., Carmelo Anthony, and Enes Kanter. Three of those players — Lillard, Anthony, and Kanter — were some of the worst defenders in the league. Trent Jr. falls into the Little category of try-hard defender who doesn’t always accomplish a ton. That’s not a lineup that’s primed to dominate defensively.

Most of the lineups Little played with involved either Lillard, Anthony, or Kanter. You can put just about any All-NBA defender with those three players and it would be hard for that defense to post positive numbers. You can only do so much to keep a team afloat defensively, and Little definitely wasn’t going to provide it.

So what do we make of Nassir Little’s performance this season? In my opinion, his progress report is incomplete. He had some great moments and stretches throughout the year, but those moments felt few and far between. He would often disappear on the court after having a solid mini-stretch. His defense is sometimes exciting, but he’s not a world-stopping defender; he’s just a young guy that works hard on the defensive end.

But is he worth keeping if you’re Portland? In my book, Little’s status on the trade block is a big old “AVAILABLE.” Lillard needs players that can help now, not hopefully help in the next couple years. Little most certainly falls under the latter category. And while I do enjoy watching him play, the Blazers don’t decide to win based on how much I enjoy watching them play.

Little certainly isn’t going to headline any trade, but his potential is high enough that he’s a plus in just about any trade package. A trade with CJ McCollum as the centerpiece and Little as a part of it (along with other necessary attachments, of course) should be enough to fetch something worth Portland’s while.

Nassir Little is like the Family Guy mystery box meme. He could blossom into anything, including a mystery box! That makes him exciting, malleable in our brains as we think about what he could be one day. But the biggest folly of NBA GMs is thinking that the mystery box is more valuable than all known qualities. The reality is that the thing you know might end up more valuable than the one you don’t.

If a trade should arise and the Blazers need to add Little to get it done, Portland shouldn’t hesitate, because sometimes the mystery box isn’t worth keeping.