The NBA universe breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Damian Lillard saga came to an end early yesterday. Three months after the initial trade request, the Portland Trail Blazers moved the seven-time All Star and three other players in a deal involving the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns.
Nassir Little was one of those three other players sent to Arizona, ending four years of tantalizing potential separated by periods of frustrating injuries.
On draft night 2019, the Blazers front office probably felt like they had hit the lottery when the the North Carolina product fell to them at pick 25.
Little was initially advertised as a lottery talent with energy, athleticism and potential on both sides of the ball. In one projection, he was compared to Kawhi Leonard and at one stage was ranked as the number 5 player in his class.
Unfortunately for Little, that comp was not widespread, with 21 other teams preferring 24 other names, including his Tarheel teammate Cam Johnson.
Little’s first two seasons in Portland yielded 48 games. There were 42 in the third and a career-best 54 in 2022-23, totalling 192 out of a possible 310 games.
Unlike the majority of his peers, Little suffered injuries up and down his 6’6 (7’0 wingspan) frame. Complaints 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.
When he was fit and available, Little was able to deliver real improvements in his game, no area more so than his shooting.
Little’s form appears to rely on confidence and momentum. When he has it going, it’s an amazing thing to watch. But when he’s off, Little had a tendency to lose composure, perhaps suffering an over-eagerness to perform.
Over the past few seasons, the 23-year-old re-made his shooting stroke, improving his three point rate from 23.7 percent in year one to 36.7 percent last season.
He was particularly accurate from the corner in 2022-23, hitting 42 percent (66th percentile) providing some semblance of scoring off an anemic Blazers bench.
He 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 it (45th percentile on defensive boards last season), Little is decent under the boards, using his size and strength to box out or snare rebounds.
Little’s handle isn’t particularly tight and he isn’t adept at playmaking or shot creation. But as a role player, he’s still able to contribute to winning via his shooting and his athleticism and intensity when going down hill, highlighted by the 43 percent of his shots at the rim during the last campaign.
On defense, Little has 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.
As far as individual moments go, there are a couple that stick out.
There was that outing against the Milwaukee Bucks in February 2021, when he put up 30 points on 5 of 7 from three, 6 boards, 1 assist, 1 steal and 2 blocks.
On defense, there were his late-game heroics against the Chicago Bulls in late 2021, in which Little shut down All-Star wing DeMar DeRozan to secure a Blazers win.
Who knows how many more we might have experienced in Portland colors of not for this week’s trade.
And while his counting stats — 6.0 points on 33 percent three point shooting, 3.2 boards and 0.8 assists — aren’t particularly notable, all reports suggest he was an off-court star over the past four years.
Perhaps its Little’s personality and self awareness that prompted him to sign that four-year, $28 million extension 12 months ago.
It’s life-changing money, but you have wonder what kind of role and payday he might have been up for if his body had done him any favors. There’s still time to enjoy that big payday if he can get his career back on track.
In Phoenix, Little will have an opportunity to prove himself, amazingly as the fifth-highest paid player, competing with the likes of Josh Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop and Yuta Watanabe for minutes.
Let’s hope Little can excel consistently on a good team and maybe, just maybe experience some real playoff success.
Good luck Nas.