Nassir Little has all of the makings of an elite NBA lead guard. Can he leverage his impressive skills into real production this year?
Every class has one or two players that have a meteoric rise throughout their development curves. There always seems to be one physical late bloomer, or a player who was misevaluated and thrives in a new team context. Last year, that player was Trae Young, who rose from unheralded four-star recruit to the fifth pick in the 2018 Draft. This year, it’s Nassir Little.
Little was rated in the low teens headed into his senior season, but spent his senior year proving that ranking wrong, soaring with a solid AAU run coupled with an absolutely dynamic All-Star circuit. He finished the year ranked third in the RSCI high school rankings, and landed at North Carolina, where he should be UNC’s first one-and-done lottery pick since Brandan Wright in 2008.
The reason for Little’s rise is simple — two-way wings are the most valuable stars in the league, and Little has all of the tools to become one someday. On defense, he has proved about as much as you can in the high school setting and has the athletic indicators to back up the belief that his baseline will be as a good NBA defender. Offensively, his combination of athletic tools and shooting progress are what helped him rise up recruiting rankings — and what might make him a star.
Little’s upside hinges on how advanced his shooting mechanics have become over the past year. Little’s jumper is simple and consistent, and while he’s not as advanced as Cameron Reddish, the shot diversity he shows is promising. I won’t go into a thorough breakdown of his mechanics — Cole Zwicker of the Stepien has that here — but he combines a tight, simple shot motion with a high release point that allows him to shoot over defenders.
Little’s footwork off the dribble is the key to his upper ceiling outcomes in the NBA. He already has a pretty promising form on his step-back jumper and is adept at using quick bursts of motion to create space for his jumper. Watching him do this to Zion Williamson is a good sign for his creation off the dribble.
Little hasn’t run consistent pick-and-roll, which will be the next step in his evolution as a scorer. To do this, he needs to get more comfortable as a ball-handler. He has shown the tendency to turn the ball over if asked to be a primary ball-handler at lower levels, and he doesn’t have strong shake or the ability to break down a defender with deceptive dribble moves. That could limit him as a number one option, particularly in a UNC offense that always seems to rely on a heavy dose of self-creation.
But in attacking the basket, Little shines. He has a very strong frame at 6-foot-7, 215 pounds, and great athleticism to boot. Attacking in straight lines, he has the burst to get to the rim past long defenders, and his finishing has consistently been a plus at the high school level. He’s explosive loading up off two feet, and his body control against contact is impressive:
Little has another step to take in attacking the basket, as well — he didn’t draw free throws at a consistent rate, and that is something that seems like it should be a given with his ability to contort his body. The college setting may be a better setting for him in that regard, but that’s a skill that Little needs to improve to have positive efficiency.
Regardless of that, though, his athleticism figures to translate in other ways. As with any top-five recruit, he figures to be effective in transition, where he can load up and rock the rim with his vertical pop:
Little’s size also could make him an interesting screen-and-roll threat, especially with dynamic scorer Coby White joining him in the Tar Heel backcourt. How UNC uses his ability to leverage his size advantage will be interesting, because his post scoring also looks pretty advanced for a wing, and that could be another way for Little to punish mismatches with the ball in his hands.
Defensively, it’s hard to draw real conclusions about Little, as is the case with most high school wings who struggle with effort level while maintaining a high scoring volume. But he has promising indicators, both athletically and on film. His frame leaves him with a high margin for error, as his strength and 7-foot-2 wingspan couple with good footwork to give him a baseline of competence with teaching. More importantly, his showings on the All-Star circuit flashed a motor that is very exciting for his prospects.
Little was up-and-down in the Jordan Brand Classic, but the biggest moment of the game was when he and Cam Reddish had a one-on-one duel. While Little didn’t stop Reddish every possession, his one-on-one defense was brilliant in shutting down perhaps the only shooter better than him in the class.
Little seems like a strong point of attack defender, which is valuable — now it’s time for him to progress as a team defender. That will be perhaps the biggest area of interest for determining his overall ceiling. If he can show scoring progression at UNC, and function as a high-level team defender, that will go a long way towards establishing his ceiling.
Little’s rise through the high school rankings was due to the strong baseline he set for himself coming into North Carolina. He has all of the tools to be a star at the NBA level with proper development, and his ceiling could be as a legitimate two-way star wing. Even if he doesn’t fully flesh out the talents he’s shown, he can carve out a career as a strong secondary playmaker. There’s still a long time before June of 2019, but right now, it looks like the top player in the class might not be any of the three Duke commits – it might be Nassir Little.