Nassir Little smiles at the iPhone screen in front of him.
He’s FaceTiming Darryl Hardin. It’s Little’s first time seeing Myla: 20.5 inches, seven pounds and two ounces, born on Sept. 15, 2018. She is the daughter of Hardin, who is like an older brother to Little, the man who invested so much time in making Little into the player he is today.
The moment is special because the two have been through so much together. Long weekends in the gym, sweat pouring on the court as Little struggled to refine his untapped athleticism. Nights spent together talking about the game and life itself.
“It was cool, man, because I look at him as like a brother,” Little said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Tar Heel. “He has a daughter, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Long before Little was a consensus top-five recruit in the country and MVP of both the McDonald’s All-American game and Jordan Brand Classic — the third Tar Heel to win both — he was a kid, learning the game of basketball with Hardin at his side.
Before Little became a projected NBA lottery pick — No. 3 in ESPN’s most recent mock draft — and “the most explosive player” Roy Williams has coached in his 31 years, Hardin was there, pushing him through 5 a.m. workouts, challenging him during games and helping the UNC first-year become the player he is today.
“I really don’t think I would be at North Carolina,” Little said, “if it wasn’t for him.”
Hardin, then the coach of the 1Family AAU team, first saw Little when he was 12 years old, standing out as a lanky sixth grader.
Around that time, Little’s interest in basketball grew. He spent eight hours a day in a local Jacksonville gym, working on his craft. As a seventh grader, Little was a backup on a different AAU team. During one game, with his uncle and parents in attendance, he did something he’d never done in-game before.
“The crowd was just going crazy,” Little said. “And I was like, ‘Oh snap, I really dunked in-game.’”
Harold Little, Nassir’s father, soon decided he would give his son $100 for every in-game dunk — a decision he would quickly regret. The bet lasted two games.
But even as Little began to emerge as a special talent, he needed someone to help him grow. He needed Hardin — to teach him the fundamentals of the game.
Harold, with whom Little also has an excellent relationship, spoke to Hardin about once a month while Little was in eighth grade. A year later, Little was playing varsity as a first-year at Oakleaf High School, and joined Hardin’s 1Family AAU team that year. By his first game, the two had already developed a strong rapport.
On one play, the team’s point guard stole the ball and threw it ahead to Little. As he dribbled downcourt on a fastbreak, an opposing player stripped the ball from him.
“I just yelled to him on the court, ‘Hey, next time that happens, do a spin move,’” Hardin explained. “And I said, ‘Dunk.’”
Five plays later, the same sequence occurred. This time, Little took his coach’s words to heart. He bounced the ball hard, spun off the guard and dunked on a forward.
“That was pretty cool for a young kid,” Hardin said. “Fourteen years old at that time, to pick up something like that without even working on it.”
At the time, Hardin, who is 31 years old, lived in Tallahassee. Little would travel to see his coach every other weekend to train.
Soon after, when both lived in Orlando, they began 5 a.m. workouts at an LA Fitness gym.
‘It’s good to be a part of this family’
Little was trying to avoid the spotlight. In his first two years of high school, he often deferred to his teammates when college coaches filled the seats, much to his AAU coach’s chagrin.
“Yo, you’re kind of hurting us a little bit,” Hardin had to tell his reluctant star. “Score the ball yourself.”
As a junior and senior, Little’s skills continued to grow as he went from an unranked prospect to No. 2 in the 247Sports Top 100. He led Orlando Christian Prep to back-to-back 3-A state championships, after transferring from Oakleaf before his junior season, and ended his senior year as a consensus top-five recruit in the country.
Arizona was a potential frontrunner to sign Little in September 2017, but he dropped the program from consideration after its implication in an FBI pay-to-play scandal. He committed to UNC in October. Coming from a family of UNC fans, the moment was a particularly special one.
“All of us were Chapel Hill fans,” Little said. “And even to this day, I look at the picture of me in the jersey on the court and it’s like, ‘Wow, people are probably looking at me the same way I looked at the guys before me.’ So it’s good to be a part of this family.”
Before playing in his first game on campus, the buzz had already reached a fever pitch when Little thwarted Zion Williamson in the McDonald’s All-American game, stealing the ball on one play and stripping the future Duke star of MVP honors.
“I still feel like I was kind of overshadowed regardless,” Little said. “I was glad to be able to shock a lot of people who expected somebody else to win.”
Hardin was there to watch Little play, like he’d been so many times before. The picture of Little in his McDonald’s All-American jersey standing next to a beaming Hardin remains the coach’s Twitter profile picture.
‘A force in the league’
Nassir Little stands at the far end of the Smith Center court, his back turned to the seven National Championship banners and jerseys of UNC greats who came before him.
It’s Dec. 14, one day before Little and UNC take on Gonzaga. Wearing a white practice jersey, light blue shorts and team-issued Jordan shoes, he puts up free throw after free throw with two people snagging rebounds. One of those people is Hardin.
Hardin was there for the Stanford game, too. He and Little went through a workout the day after the victory. They’ve also had almost-daily phone calls, talking about basketball, but also about school and grades and attempting to navigate the life of a Division 1 basketball player.
Little makes 12 in a row, then misses one before making another 16 consecutive. Yet the shots he doesn’t make are the only ones that elicit a reaction from him. Little hangs his head briefly before shooting again.
The first-year forward remains a projected top pick for the 2019 NBA Draft, despite coming off the bench for No. 12 UNC and Williams. He has shown flashes of his brilliance in 19.3 minutes per game, the most of any non-starter. Huge dunks, hard blocks and plays where he seemed to soar above the basket for rebounds.
At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Little is the archetype of the modern day small forward. Blessed with a blend of hyper athleticism, a 7-foot-2 wingspan and a tireless work ethic, he will play in the NBA. But that isn’t enough for him.
“I don’t want to just be in there and just get drafted,” Little said. “I want to be a good player in the NBA and be dominant and be a force in the league.”
Yet none of that would have been possible if Little hadn’t worked together with Hardin. It wouldn’t have been possible if not for those long hours.
“Really, his individual basketball skills that he has, Darryl has taken those to a high, high level,” Williams said. “The personal trainer, the individual one-on-one relationship that they have is something that you always admire. But he's really done a great job of pushing Nassir to get him to be not just an explosive athlete, but a basketball player.”
Little, averaging 9.9 points and 4.3 rebounds through 15 games, will likely be gone from Chapel Hill come next fall, where he will be a top pick looking to help an NBA team right away.
Whatever happens at the next level, Hardin — the man who taught him, groomed him and made him into the player he is today — will be by his side for it all. To push him and to practice shooting. To talk about life as a young adult and watch together as Myla, now almost four months old, continues to grow.
“He’s taught me a lot about confidence, when I’m going through things,” Little said. “He’s always been there to help me out.”
“I want him to be the best player he can be,” Hardin said. “And so, I think it’s a mutual respect and mutual love for one another.”
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