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Nassir Little is the Trail Blazers X-Factor

The forward is expected to take on an expanded role in the upcoming season.

Portland Trailblazers v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers’ roster for the 2022-23 NBA season appears to be set. Barring a blockbuster trade, the group as currently constructed will be the one that takes the floor come Opening Night in mid-October. As has been the case in years past, the team has a glut of talent in the backcourt, but is comparatively leaner up front. While projected starters Jusuf Nurkic and Jerami Grant are proven commodities, perhaps the biggest X-factor towards the team’s overall success this season will be the health and development of small forward Nassir Little.

The fourth-year man out of UNC has been limited to just 138 of a possible 228 games over his first three professional seasons. A first-round pick in 2019, Little struggled to break into former coach Terry Stotts’ rotation initially, and has been repeatedly stung by the injury bug since—including missing the final 45 games of last season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. He has yet to eclipse the 50 game mark in a single season.

Despite that, he has shown incredible promise and growth when he has seen the floor. After showing flashes of brilliance over his first two seasons, he was finally given a shot at extended run due to injuries last season. In his final 12 games, he averaged 13 points and 5.7 rebounds in 31.5 minutes, shooting 45% from the field and 40% from three-point land. He looked primed for a breakout second half, before the shoulder injury in late January.

Little will likely compete with Josh Hart to be Portland’s starting small forward in the upcoming season. While the two are roughly the same height (6’5”), Little’s 7’2” wingspan gives him added length that Hart can’t match, making him a more traditional fit as a starting three. If coach Chancey Billups opts for the three-guard lineup, as the team did with Norman Powell, Little is still facing a huge role off of the team’s bench.

Should he come off the bench, Little almost immediately pencils in as the top scoring option, mostly out of necessity. Assuming Anfernee Simons starts alongside Damian Lillard, Portland’s reserve unit will feature the likes of Gary Payton II and Justise Winslow, known more for their defensive prowess than scoring ability.

However, tasking such an unproven player with such a significant role is reminiscent of the scenario the Blazers found themselves in with Simons entering the 2019-20 season. Granted, Nassir has far more experience under his belt than Ant did, as Simons was entering just his second season, and first as a regular contributor. However, with all of the time away from the floor, Little’s maturation process as an NBA player has been repeatedly interrupted, making it hard to truly judge his progress.

Whether he starts or serves as a key piece off the bench, Nassir Little faces a tall task ahead of his fourth professional season. For the Blazers to succeed, they will need consistent production out of the young forward, much like he showed in January of this year. In addition, they will need him to stay healthy for the first time in his NBA career. With an already strained depth chart, a prolonged absence to a key contributor could torpedo any chance the Blazers have at making the (actual) playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.

There will be plenty of pressure on all of the Blazers’ core players to perform at a high level this season, starting at the top with Lillard. Given the up-and-down start to his career, Little feels like the true wild card of the bunch. He’s not the team’s most important player by any stretch, but being the unproven commodity he is, his contributions may prove to be the single biggest variable in the direction the team heads.