Trail Blazers' rookie Little seeks to find his way in NBA
With an overmatched opponent at Moda Center and three starters sitting out for rest purposes, Trail Blazers rookie Nassir Little was looking at plenty of playing time Thursday night.
The 6-6, 220-pound forward from North Carolina never got the chance in Portland's 104-68 preseason victory over Israeli pro team Maccabi Haifa.
Late in the first quarter, Little came down on an opponent's foot and sprained an ankle after just two minutes, 35 seconds of action. That was the end of the evening for the young man the Blazers chose with the 25th pick in the June draft.
"(The ankle) is not that bad," Little said in the locker room afterward. "I'll be back in a couple of days."
But was Little disappointed to get hurt on a night when coach Terry Stotts was playing to give him ample opportunities?
"Yeah, but I have a long career ahead of me," he said. "I'm confident in that. There will be more games down the road."
It's possible that Little's preseason is over, though it would seem likely he'll be physically ready for the regular-season opener against Denver Oct. 23 at Moda Center. Missing any time is too bad for Little, whose short-term development depends on being able to practice against veterans higher than him on the food chain at small forward. Right now, the list includes Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonja and Kent Bazemore, all who have imparted some words of wisdom during the Blazers' training camp.
"We have a great group of veterans," said Little, who won't turn 20 until Feb. 11. "Everybody has given me some nuggets that will help me go a long way. I'm grateful to everybody."
Bazemore has Little sized up as a player not unlike him when he was a rookie eight years ago.
"I told him, 'When you go out there on the floor, just play hard and bring energy,'" Bazemore said. "I like him as a player. He has a nose for the game. Playing under (North Carolina) coach Roy Williams really helped him out.
"He's a great kid in general who stays out of trouble and is on time for things. That'll take him a long way in this league. As he starts getting more opportunity, if he can keep expanding his game, he'll be around for a long time."
The transition from the college game to the NBA is a big one, though Little contends that "nothing has been super difficult."
"The biggest thing has been the physicality of the game at this level," he said, "but with my strength, I'm capable. I just have to figure out how to manage it."
Second-year guard Gary Trent Jr. said he has been impressed with Little's "ability to learn, his willingness to learn."
"He's trying to soak up any knowledge he can get," Trent said. "He is asking questions. He's playing hard. From his first week of being here to now, you can see his growth and development and understanding of our offense. He just needs experience. The more he plays, the better he'll be."
Stotts always stresses work ethic with his rookies. Little hasn't disappointed him.
"He stays after practice and works on his shot," Stotts said. "He's an elite athlete who has a lot of room to grow in a lot of areas. It's difficult to come into the league as a great defender, and he'll focus on that. He's a willing worker, and he's going to improve. As a rookie, he has to get better at everything."
The knock on Little is perimeter shooting. During his freshman season with the Tar Heels, he averaged 9.8 points off the bench and shot .478 from the field, but only .269 from the 3-point line.
"That's a little bit of a bad rap," Stotts said. "If you watched him shoot in an empty gym and he's working on his 3's, he'll hit a lot of them. He has had scrimmages where he has hit big shots.
"He is working on getting his arch a little bit higher, but his shot is not broken. It's not like he's a bad shooter. He's not at an NBA level, but he has good mechanics."
Little showed a little of what he can do with the ball in the second half of Portland's preseason opener against Denver on Tuesday, driving to the basket with a crowd-pleasing double-clutch layup.
"He has great athleticism and a good feel for the game," Stotts said. "He knows what works for him."
Trent envisions Little as "a potential 'three-and-D' guy — someone who can develop into that type of role."
"He'll be able to guard multiple positions," Stotts affirmed.
But barring a rash of injuries, his time likely won't come this year, though Little hopes that's not the case.
"I bring defensive versatility," he said. "I can be a guy who can contribute right away. It'll be up to what Coach (Stotts) wants to do.
"Portland has a good track record of developing guys. It's about if he wants to put me in the fire early, or wants to slowly ease me into things. We'll see how it goes."
Little has made a good first impression.
"He has a great attitude, a good personality," Stotts said. "His teammates like him. He has a bright future. It just takes time."
NOTES: Anfernee Simons led Portland on Thursday with 22 points in 30 minutes, hitting 8 of 15 shots from the field and 4 of 8 from 3-point range. Zach Collins collected 16 points and nine rebounds, and Skal Labissiere chipped in nine points and 15 boards. ... Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside did not play for rest purposes. ... Maccabi Haifa was within 24-21 early in the second quarter. Portland extended its lead to 56-39 at halftime, but the visitors drew to within 72-60 late in the third quarter. They scored only eight points the rest of the way and were outscored 25-4 in the final period. ... Ex-Oregon center Roman Sorkin led Maccabi Haifa with 17 points and had five blocked shots. ... Portland's next preseason game is against Phoenix on Saturday. It's the final home exhibition game for the Blazers, who have road contests against Utah and Denver next week.
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