Before the ink had even dried on his newly-signed, four-year, $28 million deal on Oct. 17, Nassir Little was already working on reasons for proving the Portland Trail Blazers’ faith in him right. Prior to a string of late-season injuries that atrophied his progress, the fourth-year wing was showcasing seldom-before-seen parts of his game, providing a steady punch for the second unit in the process.
All told, here’s how the numbers unfolded:
Per Game Stats:
— 6.6 points per game
— 2.6 rebounds per game
— 0.9 assists per game
— 44.2 percent from the field (on 5.6 attempts)
— 36.7 percent from 3-point range (on 2.9 attempts)
— 71.7 percent from the free throw line (on 0.9 attempts)
— 49.4 eFG% on pull-ups; 53.8 eFG% on catch-and-shoot
On-Off / Advanced Stats:
— -8.6 on-court plus-minus; -6.6 on-off swing
— 56 percent of time at SF; 22 percent at SG; 21 percent at PF; 1 percent at PG
— Career-lows in rebounding rate (8.3 percent)
— Career-highs in 3-point rate and 3-point percentage
For every topic that left Blazers observers in a divide, opinions were almost unified when it came to Nassir Little’s development: the effort is already there, and if a consistent shot follows, Portland will have unearthed yet another gem to add to an already-blossoming offense.
Over the season’s first month, Little offered just that, averaging 6.3 points (in just 14.7 minutes per game), all the while hitting 51.4 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from 3-point range (on 2.1 attempts). For a player who hadn’t necessarily hit with regularity on these types of shots before, the bravado and confidence with which he shot with — especially when defenses went “under” on his pick-and-rolls because how dare they! — it became quite the sight:
Things you like to see: Nassir Little is shooting 7-of-14 on jump shots this season, including 4-of-9 from 3-point range.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 27, 2022
Denver elected to go under. It should be interesting to see what the coverage strategy is in a few weeks, but Nas has proven he has moves to counter both. pic.twitter.com/qW7dVqiXpv
Coming up on five tweets too many, so, closing with this:— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) November 8, 2022
Nassir Little’s various ways of getting to his jump shot — very exciting. Off the dribble, in the fourth quarter, spot-up, etc.
• 45.2% on jump shots
• 42.9%(!) on 3-pointers (21 att.)
• 9.8% better than 2021-22 ^. pic.twitter.com/HoL3uGfB1y
Perhaps most appealing about Little’s red-hot shooting start over the opening month is that it wasn’t circumstantial. Filling out the bingo board, there were everything from one-legged, Dwyane Wade-like pull-ups to miniature fourth quarter takeovers, and even shades of legitimate playmaking chops.
On the flip side, not having Lillard created some interesting playmaking opportunities for everyone else.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) November 9, 2022
Nassir Little had a few dimes — especially vs. HOU — that stood out, and the same could be said for Ant, maneuvering zone defenses with his passing.
A few below: pic.twitter.com/Ny7rdAiXSj
Unfortunately, Little’s situation turned out a bit like Jusuf Nurkić’s, in that his numbers dwindled considerably after injuries took over. The injury list reads like a CVS receipt; there was one brutal one-month stretch from Mar. 17 to Apr. 13 in which he dealt with: a non-COVID illness, a concussion five days later against Utah, an ankle injury against Sacramento and then, merely weeks later, he underwent a second core muscle surgery, this time on his right side.
And, prior to that, Little dealt with calf injuries — the Achilles heel of injuries for the Blazers this past year — and a “mild femoral head impaction fracture” in his hip to boot. By season’s end, the Blazers were an Operation board, and Little wasn’t immune; prior to Mar. 1, he’d shot 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range. Afterwards, he shot just 37 percent from the field and 24 percent from deep.
Despite being in and out of the rotation with injuries, Little did offer a fair share of memorable moments. One would be remiss to ignore his 28-point game in which he destroyed the Oklahoma City Thunder with pindowns and pull-ups, the 26-point masterpiece against Sacramento in which the full shot profile was on display, or his game-winning 3-pointer in his hometown state of Florida against the Orlando Magic.
Nassir Little gives Portland a 3 point lead with 0:35 remaining ‼️— NBA (@NBA) March 6, 2023
Watch live on the NBA App
: https://t.co/1pomQZMAZK pic.twitter.com/bIvdWKBPjr
The question now likely consists of whether or not Little — whose affordable contract and potential has made him a convenient throw-in in trade packages for a more high-profile star — can remain healthy enough in the long-term to warrant keeping. The career-highs in 3-point makes (58) and percentage (36.7) are certainly special.
Yet even so, the 23-year-old has had season-ending injuries in three of his first four seasons, and has only played in 195 of a possible 321 games (60.7 percent). Think for a second that this year, Little missed 28 games, and this was still the most games he’s played in any particular season.
Shifting over to the defensive side of the ball, Little fit in similarly to many of his teammates. The former North Carolina Tar Heel is top-shelf when it comes to energy and motor, though the raw numbers haven’t necessarily backed that up as eloquently.
For example, to take a glance at a number of different statistics: according to NBA.com’s tracking, opponents shot 3.5 percent better against Little than the average defender. BBallIndex had a similar viewpoint, grading the Blazers wing in the 12th percentile in both deflection and pickpocket rating, and his “On-Ball Perimeter Defense” is rated as a “D+.”
This much can be up for debate, but if there’s one thing there shouldn’t be much contention on, it’s that the high-effort motor hasn’t fully coalesced with IQ. He can be caught out of position or closing out too hard. Or, as in the below example, committing seemingly-unnecessarily mistakes on that end.
Here’s one clip where he ends up committing a cardinal basketball sin in “helping one pass away.”
Over helping as a whole has always been sort of a problem for the Blazers. The rationale is understandable; the Blazers’ defense seemed at its best when they helped in gaps, and perhaps Little is following instructions from the coaching staff. But from an observer’s view, it just doesn’t appear healthy to encourage Harden, a 10-time All-Star and three-time scoring champion to go left — something he has the option to do — and Harden, almost quarterback-like, looks Little off, freezing him just slightly before whipping an easy pass to Georges Niang for a three-point shot.
Little’s intensity helps him to stick to some defenders like glue and play tough man-to-man defense. But, that tendency to gamble or fall out of position did come about from time-to-time. To provide another example:
To his credit, though, Little did get a 94th percentile rating in defensive position versatility. And that, paired with his shot profile, even had some arguing that he’d be a better fit to start alongside Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons, with Josh Hart’s inhibition to the 3-point shot.
If there’s a bottom line to Little’s analysis in 2022-23, it’s that he showed what his work ethic will allow him to do, and as a newly-turned 23-year-old, he’s got plenty more room to ascend if health permits.
A true energy-changer, Little has talked about his willingness to “make the right plays,” even if his box score numbers don’t do it justice. Given the shoot-first talent on the Blazers as currently constructed, that’s precisely what Portland needs at this point in time. But as question marks surrounding the health keep coming about, it’s worth wondering if Nassir Little’s body will ever allow him to truly come up big, as he’s shown he’s capable of in spurts.