North Carolina forward Nassir Little announced on Monday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft.
Little was one of the top ranked prospects in the class coming into the season, but he averaged just 18.2 minutes as a freshman and while he improved over the course of the season, he never fully seemed to feel comfortable in UNC’s system.
Which will make him one of the toughest evaluations for NBA decision-makers.
Here is a player that entered college basketball as, according to some rankings, the No. 2 prospect in the class and never broke into the starting lineup for UNC. On the season, Little averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 boards, which is not as bad as it looks when you consider that he only played 18.2 minutes per game. His per-40 numbers are not all that bad when compared to other prospects in this range.
The bigger issue is that in games against Tier A or B competition, according to KenPom, Little’s numbers all took a tumble. His three-point shooting dropped from 26.9 percent to 22.2 percent. He shot 44.8 percent from two-point range as opposed to 52.9 percent on the season. His scoring was down. His fouls were up. That’s not ideal.
The question that NBA teams are going to have to ask themselves is whether or not this is because of the player and prospect that Little is, or if this is a direct result of the situation in which Little finds himself in Chapel Hill.
Let’s start with the reason he didn’t see the floor, because that part is easy: He was stuck behind Cam Johnson (who had an all-american season) and Luke Maye (who was a preseason all-american) on North Carolina’s forward depth chart. The way that Roy Williams wants to play is to have two bigs on the floor, two wings on the floor and a point guard, and since that essentially locks Garrison Brooks into the five-spot, Little had to fight with Maye and Johnson for minutes.
And since Little wasn’t always great, that’s was a losing battle, especially in league play.
But this is where the questions about fit come into play.
For starters, while I am wholly unqualified to question the coaching methods of someone as successful as Roy Williams, I do think there is some room for criticism here in the way that he used this roster. Their best five features a front line of Maye, Johnson and Little, and he has not gone to that lineup nearly enough.
The bigger picture issue, at least when it comes to projecting Little to the NBA, is that he really doesn’t fit anywhere in UNC’s system. In an ideal world, Williams has a frontcourt that looks like the one he rode to the 2017 national title — with Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks — and Little certainly is not that kind of a player. But he isn’t an ideal fit on a wing, either. He’s not a jump-shooter, he’s not a playmaker on the perimeter, he’s not Marcus Paige or Justin Jackson or Theo Pinson. He is a prototype NBA small-ball four — or big wing, or whatever terms you want to use to define it — and that player doesn’t really fit with what the Tar Heels want to do.
So were Little’s struggles a result of what he is as a prospect, or is it because he joined the roster of a wildly successful 68-year old Hall of Famer who wants to do things his way?