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High-Flying Former Tarheel Sixth Man Looking to Make His Mark
We all know the Draft dilemma by now: Go with the proven player or take a gamble on someone with a higher ceiling.
On Monday, we took a look at decorated Virginia sophomore De’Andre Hunter – a high-floor/low-ceiling guy, in today’s parlance.
Today, it’s the other way around – examining North Carolina freshman Nassir Little, whose resume is somewhat skimpy but who brings a tantalizing athletic upside to Draft night in just over a week.
The Jacksonville, FL native came to Chapel Hill as one of the country’s top recruits – No. 3, according to 247Sports – but spent his freshman season as a sixth man, backing up senior Cameron Johnson. He was still efficient in relief, averaging 9.8 points and 4.6 boards last year, and some scouts feel like the best is yet to come.
Little has all the physical tools that NBA teams crave. He’s got a pro-ready body at 6-6, 225, and doesn’t turn 20 until just before the All-Star Break of his rookie year. He has a long 7-1 wingspan and a vertical leap of almost 39 inches.
He’s an explosive finisher and an above-the-rim athlete who can develop to be just as effective on the defensive end at the next level. Coach Williams raved about his work ethic and, despite an interview hiccup describing his role at UNC, greatly impressed scouts during his pre-Draft workouts.
But there are some numbers scouts aren’t exactly fans of – namely Little’s shooting percentage from beyond the arc, connecting on just 27 percent of his attempts (14-of-52) as a freshman. He shot a solid 48 percent from the floor overall, but did much of that at or around the rim.
Despite coming off the bench, Little was as much a part of UNC’s success as any starter. And he came up big against top competition – averaging 19.5 ppg through the first two games of the NCAA Tourney before posting a clunker against Auburn while battling an illness.
On the defensive end, Little has a chance to be outstanding at the pro level. He’s a tough defender who’s willing to take the challenge of the opponent’s best player. He also has the strength and moxie to slide over and defend the 4, something Roy Williams did with frequency last year.
Little was frequently the most athletic player on the floor during his days at UNC, but that’ll be a rarity at the next level. Defense and hustle translate across any form of basketball, but a small forward in today’s game is expected to can the three-ball at a better clip. If he can’t can the triple consistently and stretch the defense as a pro, he’ll have much more difficulty getting into his higher gears.
He’ll be a Lottery pick in just over two weeks. Will he continue to be sixth man material or take the next step with his new franchise?
STRENGTHS It doesn’t take long to see exactly what Little brings to the table – he’s a fluid athlete who glides through the game, creating opportunities with his aggressive, high-energy style. He’s a dynamic slasher and finishes well with both hands around the rim.
His long- and mid-range shots need work, but Little connected on 78 percent of his free throws, encouraging scouts that he has the touch to improve his outside shooting. His mechanics are solid.
Little relies on his athleticism on the defensive end as well. He’s a prideful defender who plays the passing lanes well, has quick hands and guards well in transition without fouling. He’s quick enough to check guards, skilled enough to guard 3’s and strong enough to guard 4’s.
The former Tarheel will need to develop his long-range marksmanship, but could become a very good two-way player at the next level if a team is willing to be patient.
WEAKNESSES Little might be a work in progress when he enters the league. He still doesn’t have a great feel for the game and his basketball IQ needs polishing. At this point – like so many players his age – the 6-6 forward relies almost entirely on his God-given gifts.
He’ll need to work on his understanding of the pick-and-roll at the pro level and isn’t a good floor-spacer – playing out of control at times. He can be turnover-prone and doesn’t move very well without the ball at this point.
Basically, Little’s weaknesses can be corrected at the NBA level. Right now, he has all the tendencies of an uber-athletic player who’s still a teenager.
HOW HE'D FIT One question as to how Little would fit in with Cleveland is how willing the Cavs' braintrust would be to wait for him to develop.
Little could be one of the Draft’s gems or just another dynamic athlete who simply looks good. Some feel like he’s just scratching the surface. Other’s wonder why such a highly-recruited player couldn’t crack UNC’s starting lineup. Sixth men in college are rarely top 10 picks on the third Thursday in June.
The Cavaliers are in good shape at the 4 and 5 and Cedi Osman was one of the league’s most improved players last season. Could Cleveland take a shot on him and let him learn behind Osman? Or do they have their eyes on someone more pro-ready?
Coach Beilein has seen most of these players at the collegiate level and likely has a good idea who he likes and doesn’t. The high-flying Little could be an intriguing option as the Wine & Gold turn things around.