Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops will break down more than 75 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
This installment examines North Carolina forward Nassir Little.
If the reporting from people in the know is any indication, Nassir Little will hear his name called in the lottery on draft night, possibly near the bottom of the top ten. His profile as a prospect is a bit more divisive than that draft position would suggest, but NBA teams are intrigued by his athleticism as a quintessential modern wing. Standing 6’6 with a 7’1 wingspan and weighing in at 224 pounds at the Combine in May, Little’s measurements are quite good and bode well for his future as a terrifying wing defender. His offensive profile is comparatively limited, but if he’s able to knock down open shots and reaches his ceiling as a defender, Little will be a starting-level player throughout his career.
The list of players in the NBA who measure out at between 6’5 and 6’7 with a plus-6 or better wingspan and weigh between 210 and 230 pounds is not particularly long. The full list: Abdel Nader, Draymond Green, James Ennis, Kawhi Leonard, Mikal Bridges, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Thabo Sefolosha, and Vince Carter. Add Little and fellow lottery prospect De’Andre Hunter to that list among players in this draft class who are nearly sure to be chosen, with DaQuan Jeffries right on the cusp of the second round. The point remains that Little’s physical profile is a pretty good precursor to a good defensive career, though there’s some selection bias here, as that list of players only include guys who are still actively in the NBA, rather than every player who has come through the Combine and draft process.
At this point, Little’s defensive fundamentals and overall basketball IQ lag behind his impressive athletic traits. He doesn’t always read the game as well as he should and falls asleep off the ball too often, but those are areas that can be fixed with full-time NBA coaching. His positioning defensively could use some work, which will be important if he’s playing more of the 4 at the NBA level and teams are running pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop in his direction. He’s not the most instinctive defender and doesn’t always rotate when he should, which limits how often he can use his athleticism to affect plays on that end of the floor.
None of these negatives are overwhelmingly bad, but are instead fixable issues that will improve as he ages through his rookie scale contract. He broke out as a high school star very late in the process and subsequently struggled in his one year at North Carolina, giving rise to the feeling that he takes time to jell as he reaches each new level of basketball. He won’t have that opportunity at the collegiate level, but he’ll have time to ease himself into the NBA game on his four-year rookie scale contract.
If he can work through some of the recognition concerns defensively, Little has a very good opportunity to be an All-Defensive team player throughout his career. His combination of size and strength will make him a stout defender at the 3 or 4, where he can switch onto guards and bang with bigger players down low. At his apex, he can be an important part of a switch-everything scheme that will see him defend everyone from point guards to centers.
Offensively, Little’s three-point shot will swing whether he’s a positive or negative contributor to his team. He shot very poorly and not very often at the collegiate level, but did hit 77 percent of his free throws on 100 attempts last season and has been working on his shot throughout the pre-draft process. At his pro day in Las Vegas in late May, he showed off his new shot, complete with tighter and more repeatable mechanics and much better results, whether in uncontested shooting drills or within the flow of the 3-on-3 action. It’s unlikely that he’ll frequently be asked to create his own shot from beyond the arc, but even his pull-up jumper wasn’t half bad during his pro day.
Little is by no means a primary creation option, but as a secondary ball handler, he’ll be able to attack a closeout and get into the paint, where he’s at his most dangerous. The same size and strength that makes him a good defensive prospect allows him to draw fouls at a very good rate. He doesn’t necessarily have enough shake to create his own shot at this point in his career, but driving into a compromised defense and either finishing or getting fouled should be within his game.
Like it does defensively, his basketball IQ lets him down on offense from time to time. His decision making is slow and he can be a bit of a ball stopper while he reads the defense and makes a dribble-pass-shoot decision, rather than instinctively knowing what to do as soon as the ball hits his hands. He doesn’t feel the game very well on the offensive end either, which can get him in trouble when he drives and doesn’t have an obvious path for a shot. Developing his basketball IQ and solidifying his outside jumper will be the keys to Little living up to his near-certain lottery selection.
Little’s physical talent is unquestioned, but the mental side of the game has somewhat passed him by to this point. After a poor year at North Carolina, how he translates his skills to the NBA will be very interested, as the mental side of the game is even more important at the game’s highest level. He’ll have time to ease his way into the NBA on a rookie scale contract, but landing with a team known for its patience and development is perhaps more important for Little than it is for other top prospects, which is where the Atlanta Hawks would come into play in a major way.
The Hawks have a long-term timetable and multiple top-10 picks (for now), both of which lend themselves to taking Little and letting him develop in an atmosphere without an immediate emphasis on winning. While Hawks University is a thing of the past at this point, the new regime are no slouches in the development aspect of the game either. Should the Hawks go with Little with one of their first-round picks, they’ll have plenty of time to develop him and ensure that he reaches as close to his ceiling as possible as a shooter and defensive monster. The physical talent is there, the personality and hard-working mentality is there, so it’s up to his future NBA team to coax out the mental aspects of the game and get him up to speed with NBA-level decision making.