Still weeks away from NBA training camp, Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little is sounding the alarm.
In the bustle of a jam-packed sports weekend of football and fantastic finishes, you might have missed it — the simple, one-sentence proclamation Little posted on his Twitter account Friday afternoon.
“I’m comin [sic] for my respect,” wrote Little, capping the sentence with a decisive period.
I’m comin for my respect.— Nassir Little (@2ez_nassie) September 10, 2022
Assuming the tweet wasn’t a reference to his fantasy football prowess or some underground badminton league, Little was putting everybody on alert.
After three seasons of momentum-halting injuries, paying dues on the bench and flashes of promise, Little should enter Year Four healthy with a spot in the starting lineup. In today’s NBA of versatile, velociraptor wings, a breakout year from Little — who fits the prototype as a 6-5, muscular thunderbolt with a 7-2 wingspan — is exactly what Portland needs at a position long seen as a rotational weakness.
The 25th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft after one season at North Carolina, Little was seen as a raw, athletic talent who needed time to develop. Last season, thrust into a larger role because of injuries and losses, the potential of his athletic tools began to reach payoff.
Blazers guard Anfernee Simons was heralded for a blistering-hot January where he lit up scoreboards, earning his way to a $100 million contract. People may forget, before Little went down with a season-ending shoulder injury after 45 games, he was also enjoying a notable coming-out-party to start the new year.
In 12 January games, Little averaged, 13 points, 5.7 rebounds and a 40% clip from long-distance. He played the role of the hustling energy bug, a hard cutter capable of knocking down triples and attacking closeouts with force. In transition, he was adept at leaking out for powerful slams. His game gives a downhill presence and aerial attack to an offense criticized as jump-shot dependent and ground-laden for years.
The 12-game hot streak is a small sample size, but it was Little’s first extended run to establish rhythm and confidence. He’s still 22, meaning the improvement is more promising than if a 12-year veteran saw a short boost in numbers. His development curve is still ascending. 40% 3-point shooting is a lot to ask, but it’s reasonable Little could improve his stroke to 35% — two ticks higher than his average over the entirety of last season.
With all that said, Little’s specialty isn’t offense. His athletic gifts make defense and grit his NBA meal tickets. That impact was shown for longer than just 12 games. On the glass, Little’s 5.6 rebounds per game ranked fifth-best among forwards shorter than 6-7 who played in at least 40 games. On defense, he took on tough assignments and proved ready for the challenge. Most memorably, he locked up Chicago Bulls iso-superstar DeMar DeRozan late in a close November victory (foul or not, the gusto and disruptiveness is there).
Little’s defensive field goal percentage topped out at 41.3% (4.7 shots made on 11.5 attempts). That ranks fourth-best among forwards shorter than 6-7 who played in at least 40 games last season, just trailing defensive specialists Matisse Thybulle and Draymond Green. Alongside new shiny point-of-attack defender Gary Payton II, Little will be a linchpin of Portland’s new-look, more aggressive defense under head coach Chauncey Billups. He’ll be tasked with guarding the LeBrons and Tatums of the world.
Little’s tweet Friday shows he’s entering this season, a contract year, with a chip on his shoulder and self-belief, but he’s not the only one. Billups has appeared to take a special interest in Little, showing much more faith in his talent than former head coach Terry Stotts did, or was able to, while he was fighting for his job. General manager Joe Cronin also seems to believe in his guy. For starters, Little, one of Portland’s best young trade chips, is still on the roster after the offseason transaction carousel. During Cronin’s July radio appearance on 1080 The Fan’s “Dirt and Sprague,” Cronin was asked about the team’s standing at small forward. The first name out of his mouth: Nassir Little.
“It’s definitely our biggest unknown, but with that I’d say we’re not especially concerned with it,” Cronin said. “A lot has to do with can Nassir Little come back healthy?”
It’s been a hot topic of the Blazers offseason. Can Little stay healthy? Can he be Portland’s X-Factor? What’s his ceiling? Does Portland need an upgrade? It’s been discussed in podcasts and articles..and more and more articles. All-Star forwards don’t grow on trees and nobody’s counting on Little to become that elite, but can he become an elite role player? Can he go toe-to-toe against the All-Stars at his position on a regular basis?
Much of Portland’s expectations — as well as Little’s future in the NBA — hinge on what he brings to the table in the final year of his rookie contract.
I’m guessing he understands the stakes and feels overlooked. I’m guessing he’s heard all the curiosity, speculation and — in some corners — doubt. I’m guessing he saw his 76 overall rating in “NBA 2K23,” too. I’m sure he’s ready to get on the court and put all of that doubt and debate to bed.
It was a wild sports weekend. The Oregon State Beavers won on a walk-off touchdown. American Frances Tiafoe dazzled in a thrilling U.S. Open that put tennis back in the mainstream. And NFL football kicked off in earnest.
But before that flurry of excitement, Little shot up a flair through Rip City that may prove prophetic in a few months time.
If he does break out in a big way this season, you can’t say you weren’t warned.