Dealing with a significant injury is never pleasant, but it can be a little easier to take if you can at least see it coming. For instance, losing Damian Lillard for at least two months as he recovers from surgery to repair an issue in his abdomen is undoubtably a bad thing for the Trail Blazers, but it became relatively clear what was going to have to happen well before he actually had the procedure. Same with Cody Zeller, who tried to play through an avulsion fracture in his right knee before the inevitable forced him to undergo surgery, putting him on the sidelines for at least the next two months.
Again, every injury is tough to endure, especially when surgery is required, but if the issue is persistent, it at least gives a player time to come to terms with what’s next.
But suffering a potentially season-ending injury after thinking initially that it would be a relatively minor rehabilitation? That’s tough to swallow for those who thrive on competition, which is just one of many reasons the news that Trail Blazers guard/forward Nassir Little is out for potentially the rest of the season with a left shoulder labral tear felt especially cruel.
“That’s bad, bad news,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “You feel so bad for him.”
Initially, it seemed as if the injury might not be that serious. Sure, Little was in significant pain after getting his right arm yanked backwards by Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns while the two were fighting for a rebound in the fourth quarter of a 109-107 loss at Moda Center on January 25, but he would eventually return to the game and noted afterward that it didn’t seem as significant as he initially thought.
“Initially I was like ‘Oh no,’ and then it was like, as time was going on, I was like ‘This might not be that bad,’” said Little after the loss to the Timberwolves. “Just got it strained a little bit and it was hurting a lot initially, but after I kind of moved my arm around I realized I was alright and that I was being a little bit of a drama queen. But I’m feeling good.”
But those good vibes wouldn’t last, as an MRI taken the next day revealed the severity of the injury. Little likely left Moda Center Wednesday night thinking he would be heading out with the team Thursday morning for a week-long trip. Instead, he stayed behind in Portland knowing that the rest of his season is likely in jeopardy.
“For sure it sucks,” said Anfernee Simons. “Last thing I heard was people saying he was like day-to-day, wasn’t serious. But I walked in the locker room, said ‘Everything cool?’ and he said ‘Nah man.’ That sucks to see, he was having such a great year, finally figuring it out, figuring out his role and what he brings to the game. It’s always tough to see something like that happen to him, it’s a tough thing to deal with injuries.”
While the suddenness and severity of Little’s injury makes it difficult to come to grips with, it seemed especially ill-timed considering the third-year wing out of North Carolina was finally getting the opportunity to show his value, first as a super sub and then more recently as a starter. Facilitating Little’s maturation was one of the primary focuses for Billups when he took over as head coach last summer, with the first-time head coach challenging his young ward to prove to both the staff and his teammates that he was deserving of a larger role and more playing time.
Little had done just that, averaging 13.1 points on 45 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from three, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists in the month of January, only to potentially have his season cut short just as the rest of the league was starting to take notice.
“He’s making so many gains,” said Billups. “With the things that we talked about with me taking over the job, my vision for him, what I want to do with him and for him, everything was working out perfectly. And I’m proud of him for that. He didn’t play very much before I was here, or at least have a consistent role, so one of the things for him was to try to earn the trust of the coaching staff, and he did that. And to earned the trust of his players, he did that.
“He accomplished so many things that was necessary for him as a young player in a short amount of time that I’m happy and proud of him for, but it’s always unfortunate when a young guy goes down for a substantial amount of time.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that Little has had career progress derailed by injury. He sat out all of Portland’s games in the Orlando Bubble after suffering a concussion followed up by syncopal episode. He then missed all of training camp in 2020 and did not appear in 10 of their first 13 games after contracting COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. In both instances, the expectation was that Little was primed for bigger things, only to have those hopes postponed. For young players trying to make their way in a cutthroat league, that can be devastating.
“I know what it’s like to be out for months on end, I know what it’s like to feel disconnected,” said CJ McCollum. “The depression, the anxiety, the worry, the feeling of like, man, I wish I would be out there. I know all those things (Little) is going to go through. But it’s big for him to stay patient.”
But of course, Little won’t be doing it alone. Being removed from the highly-regimented, day-to-day activities of a professional basketball team can be jarring initially, but he’ll have plenty of support from his family and teammates, regardless of the next course of action.
“The most important thing is to have good people around him at this time,” said Simons. “You need a lot of good people around you to continue to support you and be there for you and let you know that you’re going to be back 100 percent and everything’s going to be okay. I think that’s the biggest thing for Nas now going through is recovery, having good people around him to encourage him and stay focused. He knows I’m here for him any time he needs me.”