Draft preview: Is Nassir Little the No. 2 prospect or a role player? Pistons might have to make the call at 15
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AUBURN HILLS – Toronto will challenge Golden State’s reign in this year’s NBA Finals for one overriding reason: the 15th pick. If it hadn’t been the Raptors, it would have been Milwaukee and for the season reason: the 15th pick. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo were both 15th picks two years apart, Leonard in 2011 and Antetokounmpo in ’13. Two-time MVP Steve Nash was the 15th pick in 1996.
Nobody else comes close to their class, though, among the 65 players drafted 15th overall since the NBA began seeding rosters via an amateur draft. Perhaps Al Jefferson is the next most accomplished player, though he never made an All-Star team.
The Pistons have had the No. 15 pick four times in their history. Rodney Stuckey (2007) made the most immediate impact and probably wound up having the best career, though Phil Hubbard (1979), a great college player at Michigan before a catastrophic knee injury after his sophomore season, has a case.
The others taken with the 15th pick by the Pistons are Al Eberhard, back in 1974, and Austin Daye in 2009.
Last year’s 15th pick was Troy Brown, who played sparingly for the Washington Wizards. Brown profiles as the type of player most likely to be the pick of the Pistons this year: a teen with one year of college experience and little expectation of offering significant immediate help.
The four No. 15 picks prior to Brown were Justin Jackson, traded from Sacramento to Dallas in February, who shows promise as a rotation player heading into his third season after a three-year career at North Carolina; Juan Hernangomez, who’s shown flashes of promise but has yet to establish himself as part of Denver’s rotation in three NBA seasons; Kelly Oubre, a restricted free agent after being traded from Washington to Phoenix at the trade deadline and someone who’s been a part of the rotation on a playoff team; and Adreian Payne, out of the NBA after being drafted by Minnesota out of Michigan State.
Our draft preview series, which began last week with a look at Virginia Tech sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, continues today with a profile of North Carolina freshman forward Nassir Little.
FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: Nassir Little
ID CARD: 6-foot-6 forward, North Carolina, 19 years old
DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 16th by ESPN.com, 9th by The Athletic, 12th by SI.com
SCOUTS LOVE: If there was anyone more heralded at the 2018 McDonald’s All-American game than Nassir Little, it wasn’t Zion Williamson but his Duke teammate, R.J. Barrett. Take the results of that game with a grain of salt – Little led all scorers with 28 points, Barrett had 26, Williamson eight – but NBA scouts haven’t forgotten the Little who made their pulses race before his freshman season at North Carolina clouded their perceptions. Little had his moments as sixth man for the Tar Heels, averaging 9.8 points in 18 minutes a game. Carolina had two established seniors in Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson, another likely first-round pick, and Little’s freshman teammate – projected lottery pick Coby White – had the ball in his hands as the point guard. So Little had to find his niche – exactly as he’ll have to do early in his NBA career. Athleticism is Little’s calling card. He posted a 38½-inch vertical leap at the draft combine, the top mark of any wing player who went through testing. That athleticism gave him easy production before arriving at an elite college program and he’ll need to develop his skills in order to reassert his status, but it’s that athleticism that gives him a chance to do it. Combined with his length, Little proved to be a strong finisher around the rim, and it translates into making him especially effective in transition.
SCOUTS WONDER: Right now, Little projects as half of a 3-and-D guy. He shot 27 percent from the 3-point arc and took just 19 percent of his shots from there, a total of 52 in 36 college games. It’s a leap of faith to expect that he’ll morph into even a 30 percent 3-point shooter anytime soon, let alone a league-average marksman. Basically, he currently projects as similar to what the Pistons got from Stanley Johnson over his 3½ seasons before the Pistons traded him in a three-team deal for Thon Maker at the trade deadline. Little’s 77 percent free-throw accuracy – considered a reasonable indicator of 3-point potential proficiency – bodes well for his development. Little didn’t get much opportunity to make plays off the dribble, further casting doubt about what role he’d be ready to assume offensively, and passing is not a strength. At the NBA draft combine, Little said a consistent line of questioning from teams – and the Pistons were one of those he sat for – was how he handled going from a projected top-five pick going into the season to coming off the bench. “They all appreciate how mature I was about the situation and how I handled the adversity.”
NUMBER TO NOTE: 7-foot-1¼ – Little’s wing span as measured at the NBA draft combine, a number that underscores Little’s potential as a disruptive perimeter defender who could have the ability to guard everything from point guards to power forwards.
MONEY QUOTE: “Throughout the entire year, I was trying. I was accepting what was coming to me. About halfway through the year, I just kind of knew I was going through some things but at that point I had to figure out what to do to try to excel the most I could. … (In the NBA), I think there’s more spacing to attack the basket, a little bit more freedom offensively. It’s not so structured as it is in college, so a lot of guys play a little bit more freely.” – Nassir Little at this month’s NBA draft combine
PISTONS FIT: No question, Little fits a need for a wing player with enough length and the frame (Little weighed 224 at the combine) to match up physically with some of the bigger small forwards. Whether he’d be advanced enough at either end of the floor to earn minutes immediately is another matter, but athletic wings who can guard all along the perimeter and aren’t horribly overmatched against power forwards are on every team’s wish list. The Pistons under Dwane Casey are aggressive with their player development approaches and confident in the results they can produce. It’s not unreasonable to think they could get Little to a place where he could help as a rookie much as another player with a similar physical profile, O.G. Anunoby, the 23rd pick in the 2017 draft and coming off an ACL injury midway through his only season at Indiana, was able to step into Toronto’s rotation as a rookie under Casey.
BOTTOM LINE: The general consensus coming out of the NBA draft combine seems to be that Little presented himself well, showed a good shooting touch in combine drills (56 percent from the 3-point arc) and helped restore some of the luster that accompanied him to Chapel Hill. Little was the No. 2 prospect in the high school class of 2019 according to Rivals.com, behind only Barrett, in line with general draft prognostications for Little before the college season opened. It will be telling if the Pistons are able to schedule a draft workout with Little, not for what it says about where Little ranks on their priority list but for what it reveals about what Little’s agent believes is his draft range. If Little comes to Auburn Hills, it shows there’s at least uncertainty that he’ll be a lottery pick.