A surprise performance from Nassir Little next season could be exactly what the Portland Trail Blazers need to tip the scales in their favor.
Typically, contending teams wouldn’t expect much from a rookie drafted at No. 25 overall. A late first-round pick normally doesn’t have much to bring to the table a championship contender doesn’t already have. Nassir Little of the Portland Trail Blazers may be the unexpected exception to this rule.
As a projected former top-five prospect, Little has all the tools in the world to be a great NBA player. Coincidentally, the Blazers also desperately need a player with his abilities on the court. His success (or failure) could ultimately be what decides Portland’s fate in this upcoming season.
Here’s three goals Nassir Little should be setting for himself entering the 2019-20 campaign.
1. Become the Blazers’ best wing defender
In the absence of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, the Portland Trail Blazers now face the reality of a weakened perimeter defense for the first time in five years. Incumbent Rodney Hood surely isn’t providing much on that end. Kent Bazemore has the skills, but not the body. Little is an inch taller, over 20 pounds heavier and has a longer wingspan.
Although he’s yet to put it together entirely, Nassir’s defensive potential is a big reason why he was such a highly touted draft prospect in the first place. His development on that end will be the predominant factor in determining his fate with the franchise. By season’s end, Portland would be a much better team if they can depend on Little to defend the other team’s best player on the wing.
2. Develop a sustainable 3-point shot
Realistically, we can never expect Little to become a sharpshooter. He only took 1.4 shots from deep per game at North Carolina, hitting them at a poor rate of 26.9 percent. But with the way the modern NBA has transitioned, Little is going to have to shoot the ball whether he likes it or not. With the spacing the Blazers should have on the court next year, he’ll have no other choice.
Working closely along Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Portland’s player development department may help Nassir make huge strides by improving his form. If he could even hit a league average 35 percent of his 3-point attempts, he’d be a far more threatening offensive tool than either Aminu or Harkless were during their tenure.
3. Crack the starting lineup
As mentioned earlier, Little has a very legitimate opportunity to break into the starting lineup if he excels and meets his goals. Bazemore is a talented role player, but probably shouldn’t be forced into the starting lineup. Hood is better suited as a sixth man scoring machine. Mario Hezonja may never put it together, and even if he does he might be better used as a point-forward.
This all makes for a perfect storm for Little, with a wide open opportunity to prove he can be a starter near the end of the year instead of being relegated to the end of the rotation like Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. were last year. Ideally, the Blazers build a solid lead in the playoff seeding race next year and can allow Little the chance to test his mettle in a spot-starting position.
Successfully fulfilling all three of these goals could tilt the balance in the Portland Trail Blazers favor in a wide open Western Conference.