Offseason reports touting Nassir Little’s summer workouts have become an annual tradition among Portland Trail Blazers scribes. This week, Jacked Ramsay’s Danny Marang offered this year’s instalment suggesting “Nas has looked incredible physically”.
The yearly rigmarole invariably raises the hopes of Blazers fans before a soul-crushing ailment sidelines the athletic wing during the season. This lack of durability has resulted in Little playing 192 out of a possible 310 regular season games over the past four seasons and only once playing more than 50 games.
The list of annoying injuries and illnesses faced by the North Carolina product has truly been the definition of bad luck. Complaints have involved his back, ankle, knee, concussion, dehydration, COVID, a thumb, abdomen, shoulder, calf and hip, none of which appear to be career-ending or chronic.
But there’s a difference this year. Little has shed his rookie-scale contract, entering the first season of a four-year, $28 million extension. It’s a team-friendly deal that could be even friendlier if Little establishes and maintains a spot in the re-building Blazers rotation.
Strengths and weaknesses
Before being taken by the Blazers with the 25th pick in 2019, Little was advertised as a potential lottery talent with energy, athleticism and potential on both sides of the ball. In one projection, he was compared to Kawhi Leonard.
Unfortunately for Little, 21 other teams weren’t particularly inspired by said potential, preferring 24 other names, including his Tarheel teammate Cam Johnson.
Fast forward four years and Little will most likely find himself battling for wing minutes on a young, transitioning Blazers squad. A position he may not have been in if his body had done him any favors and been consistently able to play upwards of 70 games a season.
Perhaps the brief glimpses of talent we’ve seen in fits and starts became the norm for a guy playing one of the most sought after positions in the modern game. We all remember his outing against the Milwaukee Bucks in February 2021 where he put up 30 points on 5 of 7 from three, 6 boards, 1 assist, 1 steal and 2 blocks. Unfortunately, it’s not something we’ve seen too often.
Little’s defense has been far from consistent but he has the physical tools to be above average, standing 6’6 with a 7’1 wingspan, lateral movement and strength. Cast your mind back to his heroics in the latter stages of a game against the Chicago Bulls in late 2021, in which Little shut down All-Star wing DeMar DeRozan to secure a Blazers win.
He’s got the speed and agility to competently guard positions one-through-three while owning the strength to match it with smaller power forwards. He’s by no stretch a rim protector but has the ability to swat shots. Last season, among forwards, he was in the 74th percentile for blocks, swiping 1.1 percent of opposition shots — or 0.4 a game.
On offense, Little has noticeably improved his three point shot. From 23.7 percent in year one to 36.7 percent last season, good enough for the 57th percentile among forwards. He was particularly accurate from the corner, hitting 42 percent (66th percentile) providing some semblance of scoring off what was an anemic Blazers bench.
The 23-year-old also had a good year from the mid range last season, breaking the top 20 among forwards from more than 14 feet out. His energy and willingness to go after 50-50 balls remained a constant, helping the Blazers to extra offensive opportunities.
While the numbers might not indicate so (45th percentile on defensive boards last season), Little is decent under the boards, using his size and strength to box out or snare rebounds.
His handle isn’t particularly tight and he isn’t adept at playmaking or shot creation. His two offensive gifts have become his long-range shooting and his penchant for going down hill, attempting 43 percent of his shots at the rim during the last campaign.
Above the shoulders, I fear the frustration fueled by his injury troubles has resulted in an over-eagerness to perform. At times, he tries to do too much, thus sacrificing composure and the ability to make the right decision. Perhaps with more consistent and secure playing time, he can slow down and eradicate the bad decisions.
Little is the quintessential three given his physical attributes, athleticism and skillset, he can play shooting guard and power forward but it’s not where he’s optimized.
Last season, Little played 56 percent of his time at small forward, 22 percent at power forward, 21 percent at shooting guard and 1 percent at point guard. I don’t remember the point guard minutes but I’m sure they took place during the dismal tank effort at season’s end.
The chance of Little playing guard minutes is going to be slim with Scoot Henderson, maybe Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe and Matisse Thybulle set to spend time in the backcourt.
The Blazers starting small forward position is a weakness for the Blazers and has been for the past eight years. The recently re-signed Thybulle is all but certain to start at the position with two-time All Defensive Team honoree a safer option, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
But Thybulle’s prime understudy is less clearcut. The Blazers are obligated to give Shaedon Sharpe as many minutes as he can handle off the bench. The young Canadian is probably more a shooting guard right now given his lack of size but with a pretty busy guard rotation, Chauncey Billups will almost certainly give him time at the three.
Whether Thybulle and Sharpe take all the small forward minutes is a question but there appears to already be a squeeze. Playing Little at the four is an option but given his size and the fact that the franchise has two young power forwards in Jabari Walker and Kris Murry waiting in the wings, further complicates things.
As a result, there’s a very real possibility that Little isn’t in the nine-to-10 man rotation on opening night. Or if he is, his minutes are kept relatively low. It’ll be up to him to show that he can get onto the court and stay there.
Little’s extension was pretty widely accepted as a good deal for the Blazers when it was announced almost 12 months ago. It was also a smart move for Little, thanks to an injury history that might have prevented him from earning another non-minimum contract so young in his NBA journey.
I have no empirical proof but I think if Little is able to stay out of the medical room and string together a full season, he’ll find that consistency he needs. Someone who can provide stout defense off the Blazers bench, stretch opposing defenses by hitting open threes, grab boards and execute hustle plays when needed.
Whether he’s capable of being a starter on a good team remains to be seen. First he needs to get on the court, stay there and contribute so we can get a better idea of whether the glimpses can be sustainable.