With several options, we asked Akil Guruparan which player the Miami Heat should take if available at #13 and Nassir Little is his choice. Let’s find out why.
Did Little exceed or disappoint expectations at North Carolina?
Akil Guruparan - Expectations were sky-high for Nas when he got on campus, fresh off a meteoric rise up recruiting rankings, MVP honors in two All-American games, and some whispers that he might merit the #1 pick in a year. We know now that a lot of this was just people trying to convince themselves that Zion couldn’t actually be as good as it looked like he was, but at the time, that’s the kind of hype he had in the fanbase. He was doomed to disappoint at least a little bit.
That said, the season he had would probably have been considered a disappointment even with more measured starting expectations. He wasn’t going to start with two All-Americans in front of him, but he struggled both with learning the UNC system and with a lot of the stuff he could control, notably his shooting and shot selection. He was very inconsistent for most of the season, especially against good competition, and only really came on in the postseason. He had flashes, including memorably great games against Virginia Tech and Florida State, but all in all, he didn’t have the season we hoped he could. He turned up in the NCAA tournament for two games and it looked like we might see what we’d hoped for all along, but then a bout of the flu tanked what ended up being his last game as a Heel.
If there is one NBA top skill, what is it?
A.G. - Position rebounding. It’s maybe kind of obvious with his bounce and wingspan that Little would be a good rebounder, but I’d say he plays beyond just his attributes. He locates the ball really well off the rim and isn’t afraid of contact, so he’s often the first guy to the spot both on offensive and defensive glass. I know offensive rebounds aren’t nearly as much a priority in the NBA as they are in college ball (the 300th best offensive rebounding college team out of 353 in 2018-19 collected more of its misses than 21 NBA teams, for those of you who don’t watch college ball), but Little can add a bunch of cheap points if he’s allowed to crash the O-boards. The Heat are fairly aggressive as NBA teams go on the offensive glass, so I think that’s a good fit for him. With his combination of positioning and physical tools, I think Little will be a very good wing rebounder in the league.
If there is one NBA glaring weakness, what is it?
A.G. - His handle. Little isn’t very comfortable putting the ball on the floor except in the open court, and it limits his offensive game: he can’t pull up effectively, take advantage of driving lanes off the bounce, or create space for jump shots. I think this is the one weakness of Little’s that’s most likely to stick with him, because he flashed the ability to do everything else he’s been maligned for at least on some occasions as a Tar Heel. I don’t remember him ever showing us more than elementary ball skills, though, and while that’s far from something that will tank his career, it does limit him to being an off-ball player who needs a real point guard to play with.
Other than his physical gifts, how he could he contribute to the Heat? (energy or IQ or leadership or discipline or coachable or ???)
A.G. - If Nassir proved one thing as a Tar Heel, it was his coachability and character as a team player. Five-star dudes expect to start in college, and he willingly committed to a school with a logjam of guys at his position who weren’t going to get bumped off. And even if he thought he was good enough to beat those odds, when it didn’t happen, he took it in stride and tried to be the best sixth man he could be. People around the organization have raved about how he handled a suboptimal situation and about his maturity in general. And he’s self-aware enough both to accept responsibility for a season that didn’t go how he wanted and to reflect that he really did need this year of college ball, which is not something you’ll find in a lot of 19-year old to-be-draftees.
He’s also got the ability to be a quintessential energy guy. He plays with abandon and is a tear-down-the-rim dunker.
What do you think NBA scouts or media pundits missed in his evaluation, what under-the-radar talent that could surprise an up-or-down side?
A.G. - I have two answers here.
First, the popular byte about Nas (including within sects of the UNC fanbase) is that he’s all physical promise without NBA levels of basketball skill, and I don’t think that’s all that accurate. He has great finesse around the rim from a variety of angles with both hands, a promising floater, has shot really well in workouts and his pre-draft process even if his shot didn’t fall during the season, and had a good free throw stroke (take out the Pitt game and he’s an 80% FT shooter), none of which you usually see with guys labeled “more athlete than baller” and the like. What he doesn’t have as much is feel for the game/BBIQ, which I think is a separate thing from basketball skill. Little’s a basketball player, not an athlete who found his way onto a court.
That leads to my second thing, which is that Nas isn’t your typical player in terms of upbringing. He started playing much later than his peers and didn’t really play organized basketball with good competition until well into high school. He hasn’t had the time to develop feel like other prospects his age. Usually, the fear with players who don’t have at least some basketball IQ at this point is that they’re not going to get it now if they haven’t already with a lifetime playing basketball, but based both on his history with the sport and the intelligence he’s shown off the court, I find it hard to believe that’s the case with Little. Facilitation and reading the floor is a valid weak point of his game right now, but I’m less sure it’ll stay that way for him than I would be for most others with the same weakness.