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Do Nassir Little and Cam Reddish really have star upside?

Nassir Little and Cam Reddish frequently get the “upside” tag, but do they actually have the traits that lend to future developmental success in the modern NBA?

Do Nassir Little and Cam Reddish have upside?

This has been a polarizing question about the 2019 NBA Draft class. Both of these players are all over the map in terms of their perceived value. Open up any mock draft or big board, and you might see Reddish in the top five, or Little in the top ten prospects in the class. You then might go to another ranking and see Reddish barely clinging to a lottery projection, and Nassir Little down in the depths of the end of the first round.

This is because Little and Reddish had perhaps the two biggest gulfs between where they were ranked coming into the college basketball season, and the seasons they actually had. Both Reddish and Little were projected top five picks coming into the year at pretty much every outlet. But we watched as both players languished through difficult seasons where they certainly did not look like they were on par with Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett as prospects.

Little’s clunky season centered around inconsistent playing time, as he mixed quality performances like his 23-point effort against Virginia Tech in January with games like a 2-point, 2-rebound effort against North Carolina State. A strong projected shooter, Little hit just 26.9 percent of his 3s, and his defensive frame never materialized into practical defensive value because of his poor off-ball awareness and footwork on the perimeter.

Reddish, meanwhile, struggled to fit into the Duke offense and was marginalized into mostly an off-ball spacing role while R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson ran the show. While Reddish actually showed massive improvement as a defender compared to his high school film, his offensive game was very ugly, as he shot just 50.6 percent at the rim and 35.6 percent overall from 2-point range. He coupled that with 96 turnovers compared to 70 assists for the year, and his lack of comfort was apparent at baseline and particularly harmful in spots, like his rushed, contested 3 with seven seconds on the clock at the end of Duke’s loss to Virginia Tech.

But despite the outcome of their college seasons, the thought of Reddish and Little being among the better bets to be good NBA players persists. This camp uses the “upside” label to forgive a lot of their 2018-19 struggles. The argument goes that while Reddish and Little’s problems might not be completely explainable by situation, there are reasons for struggling that make sense, like Reddish being marginalized by playing with Barrett, Williamson, and no real floor spacing, and Little’s supposed clashes with Roy Williams over role. If you simply go back to their high school tape, you’ll see what truly matters — Reddish breaking down high school defenders in ways that he didn’t in college, and Little’s competitive fire shutting down one-on-one isolations and thriving as an isolation scorer. On top of that, just look at them! These two are so obviously NBA-caliber athletes, and it’s only a matter of time before they grow into being quality NBA players. They have the label that’s arguably the biggest NBA Draft buzz word: Upside.

Upside is a very nebulous term in the draft conversation. It can be given a variety of different meanings, but the common meaning the term typically conveys is, “This player doesn’t currently have X skill set, but given Y set of skills and traits, they have the potential to become Z type of player.” What X, Y, and Z are, differ on the player or the evaluator you’re talking to, but that’s the general theme. If upside is ascribed to a player, it’s usually a bet on some combination of talents the player has that in theory will make this player go from inconsistent, raw, college player to dependable, supremely talented NBA player.

The big question, and ultimately the one that the Reddish/Little polarization hinges on, is what combination of skills functionally helps turn a player into an NBA star. The tricky thing about NBA rise to stardom is that you can basically pick any skill and you’ll find it among today’s elite players, who come from all walks of life, all body types, and all skill sets. We live in a world where Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic are both stars despite being almost diametrically opposed on the spectrum of NBA body type and skill set. That makes finding a through line rather difficult.

The conventional wisdom is that the through line is athleticism, and that’s the upside argument with which Reddish and Little backers are aligned. The thinking goes that top end athletic traits help push elite players over the edge. Stronger forwards are going to be better finishers than weaker ones. Quicker guards beat slower ones off the dribble. Players with good shooting form will shoot well. This works in these two players’ favor — Reddish is a 6-foot-8 wing that’s clearly a fluid athlete, while Little is 6-foot-7, has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and is both powerful and explosive as a leaper. These also happen to be the indicators that are easy to quantify — after all, we have an entire draft event dedicated to creating a meat market for prospective NBA players, letting those top one percent athletes and players with good fundamental skills shine.

However, in practice, this isn’t really how the NBA works. In reality, athleticism doesn’t unlock upside; more often, it translates into  margin for error. Stars can be elite-level athletes, like LeBron James, but there are a variety of stars headlined by Jokic and Stephen Curry who aren’t elite athletes. Instead, athleticism is what allows a player like Derrick Jones Jr. to stick on the margins, because it allows a player who makes bad decisions or doesn’t have elite skill play to recover in certain situations. A good frame is what lets Little get a reasonable contest here despite a wrong-footed reaction to the play developing around him:

And the idea behind Reddish’s upper body strength is what gets him to the rim when his lower body mechanics can’t, which was especially the case in high school.

This likely indicates that both players will have a good shot at sticking in some capacity in the league, which is why both are still lottery projections on our big board. However, we aren’t talking about whether Little or Reddish will be viable NBA players; we’re discussing their star potential if we’re putting them in the discussion with Jarrett Culver, R.J. Barrett, and Ja Morant as options at the top of the draft. And for that group, we need to talk about the other through lines between a majority of today’s NBA stars — decision-making, passing ability, finishing touch, and consistency.

These are the things that separate a good player from a great player, and they’re also the things that are hardest to project from simple evaluations. You can look at shot distributions and assist to turnover ratio to get an idea of a player’s decision-making, but it can be difficult to see how a player is going to function as a decision-maker on a night-in, night-out basis based on highlight videos. College finishing numbers paint a picture, but they don’t tell a full story by themselves. But these are the things that help players go from talented young player to impactful contributor for a winning team at the NBA level. Steph becoming a good finisher and staying healthy certainly helped him reach stardom, but he also learned to be a more calm and cerebral playmaker as he hit his prime, which was almost equally important. Nikola Jokic’s surgical passing has driven Denver’s offense under Michael Malone. And we’ve seen the opposite be true as well; for as supremely athletic and talented Russell Westbrook is, his inability to consistently make the right offensive decisions or stay locked in on defense puts a firm cap on Oklahoma City’s ceiling.

Successful upside picks in the NBA Draft consistently have a component of decision-making or feel for the game to their skill sets that unlocks the rest of their talent. Look at the stars from the last few drafts, and you’ll see Jokic, who we’ve discussed; Karl-Anthony Towns, a gifted passer at the 5 who can be an offensive initiator thanks to his decision-making from the elbow; Ben Simmons, an obvious outlier initiator who can drive a 50-win team even with zero shooting threat; and while it’s too early to tell with guys like Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and arguably Pascal Siakam, all of those players also offer varying levels of expert offensive decision-making, passing ability, and in everyone but Young’s case defensive decision-making that separate them from their peers. Of course, consistency is going to be a problem for most young players; but you can see these other areas of upside flesh out before that comes.

Looking at NBA stardom from this lens is what kills the upside argument for Reddish and Little. It’s not that they have weaknesses in these areas — it’s that the weaknesses are so glaring that projecting improvement to even a baseline level of viability, much less star level, is difficult. Reddish’s finishing wasn’t just bad for a 6-foot-8 wing — it was so bad that only three current NBA players — Devonte’ Graham, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Fred VanVleet — have had a worse two-point field goal percentage. He lacks basic touch and doesn’t have the strength or footwork to get to the rim in traffic.

We also touched on his assist-to-turnover ratio and decision-making earlier, but to reiterate, his lack of advanced handle and tunnel vision really limits the idea that he can become a primary creator.

There have been comparisons made between Reddish and Jarrett Culver’s handles, given how rudimentary Culver’s dribbling has looked at times. But this is where the difference comes in — Culver is a disciplined ball-handler that understands his limitations, while Reddish doesn’t seem to have the basic court vision to be able to get himself out of trouble when he gets stuck against the defense.

Reddish does have some really positive defensive traits, and he does seem to be a good decision-maker from a team perspective. He really helped Duke become an elite defense last year, and he deserves credit for that. If he does have upside, it’s there. His ability to capitalize on weak ball-handlers and anticipate one pass away is up there with Culver, Williamson, and the best defensive wing prospects in the class. But given that most of the upside talk with Reddish centers around what he’ll be offensively, his likely outcome as a Jared Dudley type ancillary offensive player with defensive versatility is very likely to be disappointing.

Little, meanwhile, has the finishing aspect, and he fills the classic slasher archetype, getting a majority of his points on straight line drives and attacks of the basket. He’s strong at taking a few dribbles, using his shoulder to dislodge the defender, and exploding to the rim.

But in terms of his creation upside, again we get a pretty limited picture. Little didn’t get many chances to create for himself out of isolations — but his handle, like Reddish’s, lacks the shake to get him free to use his strong pull-up jumper, and he also suffers from tunnel vision problems going towards the rim.

And defensively, Little was mostly a disaster off-ball, offering minimal understanding of team defensive situations despite being a very capable isolation defender.

Little and Reddish definitely have talents. They had reason to be top recruits after all, and their skills are worth drafting for someone. But their athleticism and raw talent don’t equate to having potential by itself. Little and Reddish struggled this year, and to a degree, it was explained by context, but it’s also explained by their inability to leverage their talents into positive impact, and that ability is what really creates upside in terms of becoming an impactful NBA player.

Next: Jordan Poole could be a diamond-in-the-rough draft prospect

Reddish and Little still can become good players, but it’s probably worth reconfiguring what we talk about their realistic roles being. Reddish might be a really good player as a versatile team defender and spot-up shooter. Little could be a useful situation offensive 4 that runs in transition and switches on the perimeter on defense. But the likelihood that either has All-Star potential is low, given the problems that led to them having their bad seasons this year. There are reasons to draft Little and Reddish, but thinking they can become great offensive players is likely just a misunderstanding of what upside actually is in the modern NBA.

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