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Nassir Little Could Be a Wildcard for the Trail Blazers

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The Blazers don’t have many young players, but one small forward might provide hope for the future.

Los Angeles Clippers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

With only a second-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, the Portland Trail Blazers didn’t improve their collection of young talent much this summer. That puts added focus on their former first-round pick, Nassir Little. Ranked as the fifth best high school prospect in the nation during his senior year in high school, Little had a disappointing year at North Carolina and ended up slipping to number 25 in the draft, becoming the third player drafted from his own college. The Blazers ended up selecting Little with the hopes that he could become the player he looked like he would be coming out of high school.

With Little’s decision to not play in this summer’s NBA Summer League, it becomes that much harder to evaluate what he can do at the highest level. Summer League was his chance to stand out among other young players and veterans fighting for a way back into the league. Little’s only Summer League appearance came less than a month after being drafted, and he struggled in his first professional showing. Averaging just 3.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game in 17.6 minutes per game, while posting an alarmingly low offensive rating of 82.0 partnered with a very high defensive rating for Summer League of 113.3.

Since that initial showing, Nassir Little has improved marginally. He has played in a total of 96 games, starting in 7 of them, while averaging 12.6 minutes per game over his first two seasons. Despite his counting stats being mostly the same from his rookie to his sophomore year, the number that shows the most promise is his improvement from three point range. Although the sample size is small, as he averages just 1.4 attempts from three per game for his career, the jump from 23.7% to 35.0% is a significant leap. Three point shooting is essential for how the Blazers’ offense has conducted itself in recent years, and the improvement he has shown might help him carve out a spot for himself in the rotation.

Little has shown reason for optimism when it comes to what he can do as an actual contributor to a team, as he has scored above 10 points a total of seven times this season, including a career high of 30 points against the Bucks. He only exceeded 20 minutes in a game seven times this season, but averaged 13.9 points per game in the games that he did. When accounting for the outlier game of 30, he still averaged 11.2 points per game when playing over 20 minutes. Those are the numbers of a contributing rotational player for the Blazers’ offense, and those high scoring numbers don’t even tell the full story of what Little can do in a consistent role.

Little is one of only a few players currently on the Blazers’ roster that have the potential to be good, maybe even great, on the defensive end. Little has the physical gifts needed to take a leap on defense, due to his combination of size and wingspan at 6’6” and 7’1” respectively. The height paints him as slightly undersized, but the wingspan is the real indicator of what he could be defensively. His defensive counting stats haven’t quite caught up to his potential as he averages just .2 steals and .3 blocks per game for his career, partnered with just .3 deflections per game this past season. His scouting reports coming out of college painted the picture of a potential defensive monster, as he has the body to become such a player.

The other thing that was highlighted as a strength for Little was his ability as a slasher. However, he hasn’t yet been given the opportunity to showcase that skill, as only 45 of his 167 shot attempts this past season came at the rim, or just 26.9%. Compared with his three point attempts, 84 out of 167 total shots, or 50.2%, it is easy to see what picture his shot chart paints. His three point attempts per game are almost identical between college and the NBA, however, his total shots are way down, meaning a much higher percentage of his total shots are coming from three point range. In college he attempted 52 total threes out of his 274 total shots, good for just 19.0% of his total shots. He has yet to be given the green light on offense, and as such spends most of his time, as most Blazers role players do, standing as an outlet option at the three point line, and as such has yet to reach the potential he may have as a slasher.

The main question when it comes to Nassir Little is: where does he slot into a Blazers lineup? The answer to that question is not as hidden as it seems. Little is a similar player to Derrick Jones Jr. who played big minutes for the Blazers last year and started until the addition of Norman Powell at the trade deadline. It isn’t difficult to imagine Little filling those minutes and doing an effective job in that role given his improvements last year. Considering the contract situations of the two players, a cheaper option for nearly the same role may be exactly what the Blazers need to free up some cap room.

All in all, Nassir Little is a promising young player, whose potential and archetype could see him take on an increased role this upcoming year. His combination of slashing and defense, partnered with his improved shooting ability could see him taking a leap in production. His not being included in Summer League could be a promising sign, as it was reported that the Blazers’ staff made the decision that he did not need to play. This may mean that the organization has already seen everything they need from Little in order to determine that he is ready to contribute rotational minutes this coming season.