ELON, N.C. — On a night when the North Carolina men’s basketball team had a win in hand far before the final whistle, one thing was obvious.
Nassir Little has arrived.
Little poured in 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting, grabbed 7 rebounds, and jammed home three highlight reel dunks in North Carolina’s 116-67 win over Elon.
While Little’s considerable athleticism was on display throughout the night, the first-year’s impact went beyond that.
Little was all over the court in his 20 minutes of action. The wing, who was often on the court with other true big men, constantly put himself in position to fight for rebounds on the offensive glass. Of his 7 rebounds, 5 were on the offensive end.
“On Tuesday, I really felt like that that’s something where I lacked, and I knew I could do better,” Little said. “So I just told myself, ‘be aggressive in getting to the glass and just go hard.’”
And go hard he did. Little was the engine of the North Carolina offense when fellow wing Cameron Johnson was on the bench. Johnson, who finished with 21 points of his own, seemingly could not miss. That was especially true in the early going, when the graduate transfer scored 7 of the Tar Heels’ first 9 points. Yet when Johnson went out after committing his second foul with 15:58 remaining in the opening half, Little stepped up.
With seconds left in the first half and Elon showing signs of life on offense, Little sent the Tar Heels into the break with an exclamation point.
But Little’s scoring versatility and energy are what make him such an asset for Williams’ coaching staff. Fellow first-year Coby White said that’s just the type of player Little is.
“He’s going to be an explosive athlete, he’s going to knock down some jump shots,” White said. “He’s going to play hard and crash the boards. That’s an everyday thing for him that never changes.”
Little did it in every way, from knocking down 3-pointers (he was 2-for-3 from beyond the arc), to driving to the rim. And importantly, he did it on second chance opportunities. Over and over again, he put himself in position to come down with boards. His coach took notice.
“He wants to play more, and that’s the best way to do it, is to get to the board and make things happen,” head coach Roy Williams said.
It certainly helped that the 6-foot-6 Little was guarded for much of the night by 6-foot-4 Steven Santa Anna. His advantage in size and strength plus persistence on the offensive glass helped lead the Tar Heels to a 24-10 offensive rebounding edge.
“He’s freakishly strong — he’s crazy strong,” White said. “Mix that with his explosiveness off the ground, you know can’t be beat.”
Little only posted 7 points and 2 rebounds in UNC’s season-opening win over Wofford. Little and White attribute that to adjusting to college play and not yet being fully comfortable on the court.
But if Little showed anything on Friday night, it’s that he’s comfortable. And a comfortable Little is a dangerous weapon for North Carolina basketball.