Nassir Little: Role
Strong frame and willing to use his physicality
Finds seams to attack behind the defense and can finish through contact
Great feet and frame to be an on-ball defender
Can switch over multiple positions
Hasn’t found his true position yet
Doesn’t threaten offenses in space as a shooter or driver
Very limited passing repertoire
After scouting Little extensively, we believe he is among the players with the highest variance of outcomes in this draft class. So much of what he has done within the UNC system has masked his skill set catered toward the NBA game. As a result, much of the role analysis is high speculative and based on a smaller sample size of NBA-relevant skills than we usually like to see.
Offensive role at North Carolina
When Nassir Little came to UNC, he was projected to be one of the most exciting freshman forwards in the country; the excitement has worn off as the season has gone along. Little has been slotted as a big in Carolina’s offense and tends to hang out around the rim or around the elbows. He has come off the bench every game this season, not finding his niche to take advantage of opposing defenses. He is a decent attacker and has a strong body, usually preferring to deliver a blow rather than receive one around the rim. In a limited sample, he has shown a good understanding of how to operate as a screener in pick-and-roll situations. He often looks a half-step behind in the heavily choreographed Tar Heel offense and hasn’t quite grasped where the holes in big-to-big screens (a Roy Williams staple) will be. He has been difficult to get a handle on, playing just 18.5 minutes per game, and seems to spend as much time trying to catch up to the action as being involved in it. His up-and-down playing time might be to blame for his offensive inconsistencies, but it is safe to say the Nassir Little/Roy Williams marriage hasn’t been as happy as it looked when the recruit arrived on campus.
Offensive role projection -
Interestingly, one of the major reasons why Little might not be happy with his role in the NCAA is because it isn’t the most fitting one for a player of his talents. In high school he found success as a freelance ball handler with who was given the green light to probe defenses and attack off the bounce. He seems to thrive when given freedom to operate and will probably find more success with an organization that is willing to let him have more leeway with the ball in his hands. He has potential to be a great roll man. He understands how to find space by diving or popping out and can even attack warped defenses off the bounce. He will need to add some shooting to his tool kit, even if it is just a mid range jumper, otherwise defenses will be able to sag off of him, devaluing all the rest of his offensive skills. Because of the limited sample and the difficulty projecting a player who is as miscast as we believe Little is, his projections are all over the map. Teams will have to make their own decision based on what they have seen, which opens the doors for some ill-fitting pairings for the developing forward.
Defensive role at North Carolina
Little has been primarily used as a big man who plays around the rim on defense. Teams don’t generally run a lot of ball-screen action in the ACC so he is seeing more pressure from pinndowns and seals than having to defend in space. He uses his body well and isn’t afraid to lean on his frame when defending the interior, but along the perimeter he hasn’t quite unlocked his potential as a Swiss Army knife who can take on leading scorers each night. He has done an alright job in rotation as a help-side defender but can be flat footed in his recovery when an opponent catches him overextended while challenging a shot. He also should be a better rebounder than what he has shown, especially playing close to the rim on many possessions. The tools are certainly there for Little to put it all together as a defender, but he has yet to do it.
Defensive role projection -
One of the more interesting small subplots regarding Little is the change in his body type. In high school he was skinny and lanky, but by the time he reached the court at UNC he had definitely added some muscle. The added weight has reduced his lateral quickness, though the bulk has helped him deal with more NCAA-centric threats in the low post. Little is at the proverbial diverging paths in the woods. Is he more of the long and lanky type with the quickness to switch with guards, wings and forwards, or is he better served with the weight and the ability to contend with larger players? For our money, we would elect to take the former path and have Little go back to the drawing board, drop a few pounds and prepare to defend smaller players. If he can lock horns with larger guards and wings and not present any targetable weakness, he will certainly become an asset wherever he lands.
Why Little will earn minutes as a rookie
Little is a banger who can mix it up, even in the most physical environments. He is a quality on-ball defender who can switch among several positions and hold his own. Those two things will get him onto the floor, but he will need to develop an appreciable offensive skill to stay there. The team who drafts Little will also have to decide where they want to deploy him. Even though he is stout, he stands only 6’6” and hasn't shown much proclivity for protecting the rim. While the tweener position has risen in popularity over the last ten seasons, most who catch on have a single skill which makes them valuable. Little hasn't found that skill yet.
Why Little’s minutes may be limited as a rookie
Without being able to point to a single outstanding skill, Little may have trouble finding minutes. He will be able to defend, even in the spacious NBA game, but on offense what does he do? He has shot a paltry 29 percent from three and has been a bit turnover prone in his short stretches handling the ball in freelance situations. Putting the ball in his hands for any length of time severely limits the impact others have because he is not even an average passer on the move. Keeping him on the move and allowing him to use his nice array of one- and two-dribble moves while attacking in transition or early in the shot clock before defenses can get set might be a way to conceal his lack of an offensive identity for a while, but eventually he will have to have a go-to way to score in the half court. Over the course of a few days in the end of January and the beginning of February, we got to see the entire Nassir Little gamut on display, first dazzling potential front offices with 23 points and six rebounds against Virginia Tech where he stayed engaged the entire time, worked on defense and put his stamp all over both ends of the floor. However just a few scant days later he seemed lost during a 4-point outing against Louisville where he could never find a rhythm and often got swept up in the action. He will have to prove the duds are the exception and not the rule.