Going into this season for the Portland Trail Blazers there was one major question surrounding the starting lineup. The point guard, shooting guard, power forward, and center were set in stone, but there was a three man race to take the starting small forward role. Two of the three were more traditional forwards in Nassir Little and Justise Winslow, but it was Josh Hart who won out in the end.
Hart has started every game after being acquired by the Blazers last season, but as a traditional shooting guard, having him appear next to Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons in the starting lineup this season led to some questions. Many fans are wondering if this is the best time to switch back to starting a real forward after a couple years of Gary Trent Jr. and Norman Powell being the third in a three guard lineup. The most logical to take that spot going forward for the Blazers seems to be Nassir Little.
Little has been an intriguing player since he was drafted back in 2019. He was the number five high school prospect heading into his lone season at North Carolina before falling all the way to 25th in the draft. Little had the potential to be a defensive force heading into his career and had the basic abilities that seem to indicate his offense could reach a level that would turn him into a double digit scorer.
The best example of that came last year in the dregs of the season. Little averaged 13.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game when not playing with Lillard. Those numbers show promise. Of course the points total is a bit inflated without Lillard, but it is a flash of what could possibly be Little’s ceiling.
Little was drafted not because of who he was at the time coming out of college, but because of who he showed flashes of becoming. The idea of a 6’5” super athletic wing who can defend at a high level and hit the occasional three point shot was too good to pass up.
Through five games this season it is easy to see the vision. Little is averaging one three point make a game on just over two three point attempts per game. He is averaging 5.8 points and 2.2 rebounds early in this season in just 14.6 minutes per game. Although it is a somewhat flawed stat that does not accurately capture how players would actually perform, Little’s per 36 stats are 14.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game to begin the year. A tiny sample size of course, but a good look into how Little could be performing if given the starting role.
The case for increased minutes is a difficult one to make. With the Blazers’ bench looking like it does now, there may just not be enough minutes. Little had the most minutes off the bench (18) in the Blazers recent blowout win over the Nuggets, but that came in a game without Justise Winslow and where Little got a few minutes in garbage time. In every other game there have been at least two Blazers players with more minutes off the bench than Little. With Gary Payton II coming back sooner rather than later, it is tough to see the current version of Nassir Little getting enough playing time to show what he is really about.
The best way to quantify improvement in young players is generally in the basic counting stats. However, with the up and down state of the Blazers’ roster in the last few years, some of those counting stats are somewhat artificially inflated, making his current performance almost look like a disappointment on paper.
Field goal percentage is also a good indicator of progress. Little’s two point percentage has increased every year of his young career, with a slight jump last year (despite his overall field goal percentage taking a small hit). Little shot significantly more last year than any other year of his career so far but his efficiency stayed almost the same. That is one of the more promising statistics out there for Little. He will likely never be a major focal point of an offense, but if he can contribute at a high level as a third or fourth option in a given lineup, his future with the Blazers looks promising.
After years of a revolving door at the forward spots, it is a good problem to have too many wings that can contribute. Maybe Nassir Little wouldn’t see it that way, but giving him competition for playing time while also having him out there in consequential moments of the game should do nothing but improve his ability to contribute at a high level. Signing a four year contract extension worth $28 million is a good step too.
Josh Hart seems like the right pick for the starting lineup so far. He plays bigger than he is. He brings down rebounds, defends at a high level against players that have a few inches and a few pounds on him, he does all the dirty work, and he plays like his life is on the line every game. I’m not saying Little should take his spot, just that he has to want it. That starting role is a motivator for Little, a spot that he could view as rightfully his, especially with how well he played last season. If anything, coming off the bench could be best long term because it gives him something to work for.