Little expects to do big things
I watched North Carolina play on television only three times last season, all late in the year — against Duke in the ACC tournament, and versus Washington and Auburn in the NCAA Tournament.
Nassir Little was outstanding in a blowout win over the Huskies — 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, seven rebounds in 22 minutes — and didn't do much in the other two games.
I would never have predicted the 6-6, 220-pound freshman who came off the Tar Heels' bench every game last season would become the Trail Blazers' first-round draft pick Thursday night.
But Neil Olshey wouldn't have, either.
"Him getting to No. 25 wasn't a situation we were anticipating," Portland's president/general manager said, "but we're thrilled to have him."
Little fell like a shooting star on draft day. Projected to go somewhere late in the lottery — between Nos. 10 and 14 — the Orlando, Florida, native was squirming in his seat as team after team passed on him. Finally, the Blazers offered their bid, and Little had his handshake and hug with Commissioner Adam Silver.
"I was anxious, but all the anticipation went away" when he was picked, Little said. "I was so grateful to hear my name called. It was definitely worth the wait."
What turned off other teams? Perhaps his 3-point shooting — .269 — in a game that increasingly relies on the 3-point line.
Maybe that he struggled with his reserve role in his only season at North Carolina, sometimes as a contributor, at other times insignificant. This despite coming to college as one of the nation's premier high school players, the Most Valuable Player of the McDonald's All-America Classic and co-MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic a year ago.
"Whenever his game expanded beyond his comfort zone as a rim-running 'big,' the results weren't encouraging, and his freshman season didn't justify the hype of his commitment to Coach Roy Williams," wrote Matthew Giles of the Washington Post.
But everybody agrees there is a lot to like about Little, who averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in 18.2 minutes for the Tar Heels, shooting a solid .478 from the field and .770 from the free-throw line.
"I've been a head coach for 31 years, and he could be the most explosive athlete I've ever coached," Williams told reporters before the draft.
"He's an absolute steal," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "He's a top-10 athlete (in the draft). Very gifted, very physical, and excellent in transition. He can run the floor, he plays with a really good motor, he's an excellent defender. His perimeter shot needs to be ... refined, but Portland got a steal in Nassir Little at No. 25."
Olshey sounds as if he would agree. Asked if he'd have been told before the draft that he would be able to draft Little 25th, the Blazer executive said, "I would have been shocked that he would have been there. I would have said, 'That's a great get.' "
Olshey was in Chapel Hill to scout a pair of games in February, but admitted it was primarily to watch other players. Little didn't work out for the Blazers before the draft or meet with them at the NBA Combine. They simply thought he'd be gone by the time their number was called on draft night.
"I never thought he'd be the target of the scout," Olshey said.
Neither did Little.
"I was surprised the Blazers drafted me," he said. "I hadn't had much communication with them. I didn't know they had much interest with me. I'm just fortunate they saw something in me that others didn't see."
The Blazers did their due diligence. Investigators conducted the background check they routinely do on dozens of prospects for the club each year.
"He graded as exceptional — one of the highest rated guys we've had in terms of character, background, family," Olshey said. "He has the whole package, on and off the court."
Little is no dumb jock. He was a 4.0 student, a National Merit Scholar and the salutarian of his senior class at Orlando (Florida) Christian Prep, where he attended his final two years of high school. He made the All-Academic team in the ACC as a freshman.
Little's parents, Harold and April, are career Navy officers.
"They taught me so much my entire life, developing the way I look at the world and making sure I show everybody respect and being grateful for everything I do," Nassir said. "That's going to stick with me and help me be successful in the NBA."
Little moved two hours away from his home in Orange Park to Orlando for his final two years of high school. He lived with his trainer, Darryl Hardin, who is "like my brother."
"It caused me to grow up a little bit quicker, without my parents," Little said. "It helped prepare me for college. That's going to help me prepare for this next level, being a man and being able to handle my own things."
Though Little is a good positional fit for the Blazers — a small forward who should be able to play some shooting guard and perhaps some power forward — "this wasn't a need pick," Olshey said. "This was the best player available who also happens to be a small forward. We love his athleticism, his upside. He has a tremendous ceiling."
At North Carolina, Little played mostly power forward behind Cameron Johnson, a senior who was taken by the Phoenix Suns with the 10th pick in the draft.
"I give Nassir a lot of credit," Olshey said. "Carolina is a unique system with the way they play. And they were an elite team. They had some older guys playing a similar position (to Little). He went into Carolina without a sense of entitlement. For him to be able to sublimate his game and play 18 minutes to help them win and play a little out of position — he got out and competed at a high level."
Little has a 7-1 wingspan and a jump reach of 38.5 inches, the latter second-best at the NBA Combine.
"Physically, he's a beast," Olshey said. "He covers a lot of ground. He can fight a lot of the undersized 4's. He's comfortable facing the hoop. His length is going to be an asset. He has the quickness laterally to defend on the perimeter against a lot of the 3's and the bigger 2's. He can get the rim, he scores in transition, he gets offensive rebounds."
Little's one season with the Tar Heels wasn't the happiest of times.
"It was tough for me, but I made the best of the situation," he said. "I averaged almost 10 points and five rebounds in under 20 minutes. That's a high level of production in the minutes I got.
"I had a limited role, so I wasn't able to showcase myself as much as I wanted to. But I definitely think I'll be able to shock a lot of people in the NBA."
That Little wants to be coached and is willing to work "is going to be his saving grace," Williams said.
Said Little: "Not everything is going to go your way. It's about how you respond to it. That will determine how successful you'll be."
Little, who turned 19 in February, is his own man, too. He wears a tattoo on his left arm that reads, "Make Your Own Legacy."
"I've always done things a little bit differently," he said. "Never played on the Nike (AAU) circuit. Somebody told me the only way I could be successful in my life was by going on the Nike circuit. I wanted to show them I'm a good enough player, I could get noticed anywhere I played at.
"I played for a team (Team 1 Family/Showtime Hoops) that was initially unsponsored; then we got signed by Adidas my junior year. I always made my own path, carved my own way. That's going to continue going in the NBA."
Little never paid attention to the Blazers until this year's playoffs. He noticed the potency of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the backcourt.
"They play fast," he said. "They have a lot of guys who can score, especially 'Dame' and CJ. They're a pretty young team. I think I can help them on the wing."
Little knows one Blazer well — guard Anfernee Simons, an Orlando native who is eight months older than him.
"We just played pick-up like a week or two ago," Little said. "Crazy we're going to be playing for the same team. We played against each other in high school a little over two years ago. They beat us, but it was definitely a close game. He's an extremely good scorer and perimeter shooter."
Little said getting drafted by the Blazers is "a blessing in disguise."
"Slipping down to 25 — initially I was confused, but I looked at their roster and how they played in the playoffs, and I actually think it's a really good fit for me," he said. "I can help get us going, rebounding and with my ability to hit open shots and finish plays, whether by throwing lobs or off of cuts. I can be that scorer without having to be the focal point of the offense."
A few years ago, Olshey accumulated a group of guards — McCollum, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe — who were close to the same age and could develop together. He envisions the same happening with Little, Simons and Gary Trent Jr.
"Nassir has guys like 'Dame' and CJ he can look up to, but also guys on the same time line as him he can work with on a daily basis," Olshey said. "It's a group to grow with."
Olshey said he's not concerned with Little's poor 3-point shooting at North Carolina. The good free-throw percentage "is more indicative in college of being a good shooter than 3-point percentage. His shot needs some tweaking, but his mechanics are solid."
Little is being added to the Portland roster as a future contributor. If that future is as a rookie, great, but the Blazers aren't counting on it.
"We have confidence in our ability to develop players," Olshey said. "Nassir will develop. He'll play if he proves to Terry (Stotts, the coach) that he can help us win games, which is the path we're on. If not, we'll be patient with him as we have been with the other guys like him we've had."
Olshey said the draft-night results should serve as a warning for several of the incoming rookies, including Little.
"Relative to where they were recruited out of high school, they might have gotten a wakeup call as far as what guys need to do at the college level, and to not just rely on their reputation in high school," he said.
"There will be a learning phase for (Little), things we need to do with him skills-wise. There were definitely bumps in the road for him at Carolina. That's why he got to No. 25. It's our job to get him back up to the ceiling he was at when he stepped onto campus there last September."
Little intends to make the Blazers look good for their faith in him.
"I'm so grateful to have Portland take a chance on me," he said. "I'm ready to get started on this journey. My entire life, people counted me out. I was always overlooked. I was always going against the grain.
"I'm just going to have to shock everybody like I've done every minute of my life."
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)