The Portland Trail Blazers selected Nassir Little with the 24th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft after the North Carolina product reportedly slid down everyone’s boards. Since then, he’s played 138 (or 65 percent) of a possible 228 games, largely due to a random series of injuries, impeding what is still considered to be a rare athletic talent.
But despite his obstacles, the 22-year-old has still been able to show very obvious glimpses of the player he can be. While career averages of 5.8 points on 31 percent shooting, 3.4 rebounds, 0.7 assists don’t appear too impressive, he has showcased the ability to shoulder serious scoring responsibilities and crucial defensive assignments.
I think everybody remembers Little’s performance in a road loss against the Milwaukee Bucks in February 2021, where he put up 30 points on 71 percent three point shooting, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal and 2 blocks. In January, he showed out against the Atlanta Hawks at the Moda Center with the Blazer prevailing on the back of a 22 point performance, registering 80 percent from three, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal. On defense, he most notably and impressively quelled Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan in the dying stages of a home game victory for the Blazers last November.
Conveniently for Little, he is currently the only true small forward on the Blazers roster, standing somewhere between 6’6 and 6’7 and reportedly bulkier than what we’ve seen in previous years. The Blazers looks to have very little choice in starting Little at the three, hoping his body is able to stand up to the rigors of an extended workload through a full NBA season. A pretty big ask for someone who’s barely been able to stay on the court and, thus, in the rotation.
If Little is able to string a full season together this season, he goes into 2023 restricted free agency in demand, if only for the fact that he plays a position of need in the modern NBA. Obviously, the Blazers can match any offer put to the wing, but those numbers could be north of anything they might be willing to pay in order to keep building this roster around Damian Lillard.
Alternatively, Little could again succumb to injury this season, finding his services far less attractive and consequently lowering his price. If he can show some sort of consistency, I’ve no doubt the Blazers would like to keep him but another season of rehab could seriously jeopardize his future NBA prospects.
Discussion of a Little extension was last week raised by Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer last week. The question currently stands as to whether the Blazers and Little’s agent Adam Pensack can come to an agreement that benefits both sides. Sure, securing Little’s long-term financial security at a price that’s palatable for the Blazers present and future would be great for the franchise.
Easier said than done.
Little needs to know he’s being paid for the output he's able to provide while the Blazers need to shield themselves from any long-term injuries.
Four years, with a team option or partial/non-guarantee on the fourth is probably the best place to start. This gives the Blazers an opportunity to opt out early or provide a trade partner with a sweetener if Little is moved, regardless of whether he’s able to play.
For Little to agree to a deal, you’d have to imagine he’s not taking less than $10 million a year and realistically, nothing less than $12 million. “Why?” I hear you ask. Well, while injury and illness have waylaid his contribution, his upside and those small glimpses of contribution discussed above, still make him an enticing option.
We also need to remind ourselves that the cap will rise over the next few years so a contract at around the $12.5 million mark might actually be less than future midlevel exceptions. If Little’s able to stay fit, he’s almost certain to outplay that and if not, it’s still reasonable salary ballast in trades moving forward.
So, let’s assume that if a deal gets done it’s in the four years, $50 million range, with a team option on the final year.
Poison Pill Provision
Just as a reminder, this provision arises if a team extends a player’s rookie scale contract, then trades him before the extension takes effect. The player’s incoming value for the receiving team is the average of his current-year salary and the annual salary in each year of his extension. Conversely, his current team, simply treats his current-year salary as the outgoing figure for matching purposes.
So if the Blazers extended Little this summer, the provision would apply if he was dealt at next year’s trade deadline. This means that any deadline deal involving Little would see the Blazers sending out his current salary at $4.1 million. However, the team receiving him would be taking on just under $11 million — assuming the four-year, $50 million extension.
This is something General Manager Joe Cronin will no doubt be aware of as he continues to build this team throughout the year and into February.
The benefits of extending Little are pretty obvious. The Blazers lock up a potential starting-level player who, if fit, will outperform a contract, which is likely to rest below the midlevel exception before it expires.
It benefits Little as well. For a young man who is yet to enjoy consistent time on the court, at least $37.5 million in guaranteed money looks pretty enticing, especially if he spends the next three years in the doctor’s hands and on the bench. If Little does outperform the deal, he’ll be able to negotiate a new, more lucrative, extension or contract at ages 25 or 26, just as he enters his prime.
The Blazers haven’t been given a lot to believe that Little can play a full season. They’ve also just secured the services of Shaedon Sharpe, a young man who might hopefully — see, I’m not committing to anything — be capable of playing a similar position and at a higher level.
Some might say, it wouldn’t be particularly prudent for the franchise to commit to two young wings for four-to-five years when neither has shown any real capability of contributing at a level the team needs. Little may never be healthy and while $12.5 million a year isn’t grotesque, it handcuffs the Blazers considerably if he doesn’t actually play.
There’s a drawback for Little too. As discussed above, if he manages to stay healthy and reach the potential we all hoped he’d reach, he’ll not only outperform his deal, the Blazers will be getting away with a steal of the highest magnitude. Sure, he can re-negotiate in a few years time, but a breakout 2022-23 holds him back from earning equal to his contribution for a while.
I don’t know what’s being discussed between the Blazers and Little’s representation but you’d have to imagine all of the above will factor into a final decision. At this moment, Little is almost certain to start at small forward for the Blazers, simply because he’s the only real small forward on the roster.
If Little wants to bet on himself he could be in for a lot of attention and big money in July 2023. But, if his body fails him again, future contracts might be minimal or, perhaps, not even existent. Sure, the latter is probably an exaggeration but it could be enough of a reason for him to put pen to paper this summer.