When Nassir Little first stepped foot on UNC’s campus last fall, he did so with national media attention and high expectations. Expectations set by himself, by his support system and, especially, by the millions of onlookers who were following his journey from afar.
It was thought and believed by many that, through sheer athleticism and raw strength alone, Little would walk into the Smith Center and wreak havoc on day one, and that he wouldn’t look back whatsoever. Ideally, Little would mesh immediately, find consistency early on and work toward building his case for being a lottery selection in the NBA Draft after what could be his lone season as a collegiate athlete.
This isn’t what happened, though. Over the first few months of the 2018-2019 men’s college basketball season, viewers didn’t recognize the #5 forward.
This isn’t to say that Little was playing poorly. Twenty-one points at Elon, 19 points versus St. Francis PA and 14 points versus UNC-Wilmington signal otherwise. Yet, these were early non-conference matchups against mid-majors, weaker teams, that gave head coach Roy Williams the freedom to empty his bench without worrying (too much) about the outcome.
Through the first 16 games of the regular season (13 non-conference, three conference), Little posted averages of 9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.8 assists and roughly half-a-steal and half-a-block in approximately 19.3 minutes per game. These numbers are fine. But, that’s the issue — they’re merely fine, and not what one would likely expect from the highest ranked recruit to don a UNC jersey since 2010.
But Little’s disappointing start is to no fault of his own.
Coach Williams is a traditionalist in many ways, two of which are pertinent to the discussion of Little’s play:
(1) Williams has a well-known reputation for bringing first-year players along slowly, especially when there are other talented players within the rotation (e.g., Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams).
(2) Williams’ traditionalist system features strict positional roles (floor-spreading wings and post-playing bigs) with little-to-no overlap, in which combo-forwards like Little are left with essentially two different positions to learn.
So far, the results have been mixed, with his stat sheets oscillating between positive and subpar on a regularly inconsistent (and frustrating) basis. Relatively impressive performances against mid-majors have been juxtaposed with duds against “” opponents such as Michigan, N.C. State and Kentucky.
Little has largely struggled in a myriad of ways: his off-ball/help defense is inconsistent, and at times, undisciplined. His perimeter jumper, which looked solid during his play months prior to the season, has yet to fall with any consistency. He’s struggled to take over mismatches against both smaller and slower opponents, due to a loose dribble (i.e., lack of shake and agility) and potentially bulking up faster than expected over the summer; and, overall, his impact on winning basketball has been inconsistent.
Things may have changed, though.
During UNC's recent three-game winning streak, Little has seemingly snapped a season-long string of subpar performances against stiff competition. Against Notre Dame, Little scored all of his 11 points in the final minutes of the game; in 13 minutes against Miami, his 12 points helped stave off a pesky Hurricanes squad; and, against No. 10 Virginia Tech, Little posted a career-high of 23 points, as well as six rebounds and three assists in what would amount to a blowout victory for UNC.
Over the recent three-game stint, Little is averaging 15.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and one steal per game in only 17 minutes per game.
When analyzing his per-minute production, his last three games completely overshadow the first 16:
- First 16 (per 40): 20.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists shooting 48.8 percent, 20.7 3PT percent and 70.7 FT percent
- Last 3 (per 40): 36 points, 11 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.4 steals, shooting 62.5 FG percent, 66.7 3PT percent (2-3 3PT), 87.5 FT percent
Small sample size aside, Little is currently scoring just under a point-per-minute over his last three games, which is completely unsustainable but also completely fun and impressive. His heightened production gives UNC a spark in the midst of conference play, but it signals that Little may have truly turned the corner and found a level of desired comfort on the court. Although his gaudy per-40 numbers should fall back to earth, it’s reasonable to expect the forward to maintain a positive impact on the team, especially if he earns increased time or role in the future.
Little is capable of impacting the game unlike any Tar Heel, and unlike any player in college basketball, relative to his team and role. No Tar Heel has his combination of skills, and it’s important for both him and the team to realize this.
If the Tar Heels are to be unlocked and fully realized as a title contender, they must optimize Little, putting him in positions to succeed, whether that’s as a starter or as a key high-usage player off the bench.
The minute allocations, positional duties and schematic minutia are out of his control. All that’s left for Little is to be himself and just play.
“It’s just fun, man,” said Little. “This is the basketball I’m used to playing.”
“This is me.”
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