If ever there was a college basketball player built to handle the hype and unrealistic expectations heaped on him by fans and the media, it’s Nassir Little, who recently completed a freshman season/career at North Carolina that many who don’t know him would call star-crossed.
Philosopher Nassir, as teammate and fellow future NBA lottery pick Colby White christened him, would beg to differ.
Little -- a 6-foot-6, 220-pound athletic swingman -- came to the Tar Heels as the No. 2 player in the class of 2018, ahead of even Duke’s Zion Williamson and just behind the Blue Devils’ R.J. Barrett. Little was just the fifth player at the time to be chosen MVP of the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand all-star games. He was destined to, as Little says, “come in, start, average 15 to 20 points and play 35 minutes. That’s what people probably expected me to do.”
Instead, Little played behind Carolina stalwarts Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams, battled illness and injury and wound up the subject of scrutiny that has dogged him even into last week’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, from which a major website ran a story that misconstrued the meaning of a comment he made. The story essentially said he passed the blame for a supposed underwhelming season on to his coaches at UNC.
In Little’s mind, there’s no blame to place, as he said in another interview, this with NBA.com. Little’s season -- he averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds -- was the one he was supposed to have.
Like anyone else with even a casual interest in college basketball, Little was well aware how Williamson -- he of the Tar Heels’ archrival -- emerged this season to become the national player of the year and the certain No. 1 pick in next month’s NBA Draft. Williams and Barrett were both first-team All-Americans. Little averaged 18.2 minutes a game, and people who aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the Carolina program wondered what went wrong.
“This season was all about learning lessons,” Little says. “I think what people don’t see is how much I learned, and the kind of experience I was able to gain. My entire life, I was a starter. I got all the shots. Now I know how to be effective in different roles.
“That’s something I can use going to the NBA, where everybody’s talented. I think that gives me an advantage. Now I know how to come in off the bench and affect the game.”
Little proved as much as his freshman season progressed and he found his place in the Tar Heels’ rotation.
“I've been telling you guys all along that he's coming,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams told the media late in the season. “He's coming, but it's just some guys, it takes them a little while to get more comfortable than other guys. The defensive end of the floor is what I'll point to again."
It wasn’t just Williams who noticed Little’s comfort level had risen.
“He is showing more and more now toward the end of the year why people thought he was one of the top players in the country coming out of high school,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said after a late-February game in which Little contributed 18 points and eight boards. “I wasn't surprised he played as well as he is capable of playing. We expected that. He is an outstanding kid. I know him very well. He has high character and is loaded with talent.”
Little might not have been a first-team All-American, or All-Atlantic Coast Conference, as Williamson and Barrett where, but he was just the fifth freshman in North Carolina history to make the ACC All-Academic team. His fall semester GPA was 3.9. Again, to anyone who knows Little, this was no surprise. He was the salutatorian of his high school class after compiling a 4.2 GPA.
This takes us back to Colby White’s nickname for his teammate. Philosopher Nassir has been a deep thinker as far back as he can remember.
He is showing more and more now toward the end of the year why people thought he was one of the top players in the country coming out of high school.
“I was always that kid that asked why about everything,” Little says, “and always wanted to know why things were the way they were and how they worked. As I grew up, it caused me to be more thoughtful about things and to be more analytical.”
Little may not have made the impact Zion Williamson did, but when he wasn’t playing, he paid attention to his coaches and to what was happening on the floor.
“I’ve always been a guy that had the capability from a physicality and athletic standpoint,” Little says. “Carolina helped me learn more about the Xs and Os of the game. About schemes. About understanding what it really means to play help defense. A lot of that I didn’t know before.”
Darryl Hardin, director of the 1 Family AAU program in Tallahassee, Fla., has known Little since he was a 5-foot-9 sixth grader -- “I walked into the gym one day and saw this little kid hanging from the rim,” Hardin says -- and believes his thought process transcends the court.
“He was in the ninth grade when he started getting scholarship offers,” Hardin says. “He’s always unselfish, but all of a sudden, he’s passing the ball to his teammates more than before. I ask him what he’s doing, and he tells me if he can get his teammates the ball and they score, they can get scholarship offers as well. That’s the kind of kid Nassir Little is.”
Philosopher Nas actually took a college philosophy course this year. But he didn’t need it to know he sees the world differently than many of his peers, especially athletes.
“I’ve tried to not make things so do or die,” Little says. “I just see things for what they are and try to learn from them.”
Little learned from his experience in Chicago, and he’ll learn on the fly as he works out and interviews with NBA teams in the final month before the Draft. He’s been training hard, working on what he perceives as weaknesses in his game. There’s no telling how many jump shots he’s launched since his season at Carolina ended, trying to gain more consistency. He’d like to tighten his handle, and he’s been watching NBA game tape, in an effort to fine-tune his decision making. “It’s all about making quick reads and making the right decisions,” he says.
The final word on Little is his definition of the well-worn phrase “work ethic.” Suffice it to say he’s turned that over in his mind a time or two, and here’s what he’s come up with. It’s the message he’ll convey to NBA executives.
“People use the term work ethic, and a lot of guys say they have it,” Little says. “Yeah, they might work out on the court. But work ethic goes beyond basketball; it’s just an application toward life. I think I work hard in every facet of life, whether it’s school, trying to help out my family, things like that. I think that’s what it truly means to have a great work ethic.”
Spoken like a great philosopher.
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