Freshman Nassir Little has potential to take UNC basketball to next level
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — To say hyped freshman Nassir Little will be an impact player for North Carolina this year would be a drastic understatement.
Little’s credentials speak for themselves. He is the No. 3-ranked player in the 2018 recruiting class according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings and was the MVP of both the McDonald’s All-American Game (28 points, five rebounds) and the Jordan Classic (24 points, six rebounds). Even in a freshman class filled with the future faces of basketball, the 6-6 forward from Orlando Christian Prep was able to stand out.
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A recruit of Little’s caliber has not committed to the Tar Heels since Harrison Barnes — 247Sports’ No. 1 player in the Class in 2010 — chose to play college ball for UNC. Of course, the looming threat of possible postseason bans after the University of North Carolina’s African and Afro-American studies scandal played a major role in that as well.
The NCAA did not punish the Tar Heels — based on UNC’s argument it had an academic issue not specific to its athletics department — but the school focused on recruiting five and four-star players that fell more in the No. 20-50 range of the rankings.
“For the longest time, North Carolina was one of the cool schools to go to and the academic scandal obviously hurt them a little with top-tier guys,” Evan Daniels, director of basketball recruiting for 247Sports, told Sporting News, “so the fact that they could go out and one: They had a lot of success on the court, but two: It showed that they could still recruit that level of a player.”
Both Daniels and Brian Snow, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports, said Little has always considered UNC to be a dream school.
“Obviously, there was the FBI situation that really took Arizona and Miami out of the mix, even though, as it turns out, those schools really weren’t offering him money and he wasn’t asking for it,” Snow said. “At the time, nobody really knew that, so they couldn’t continue recruiting the kid. Even though the Tar Heels got in late, it was a school he was fond of, a school that he liked and he ended up there.”
Described by Daniels as “a guy who improved over time,” Little was once a top-30 recruit as late as last spring and summer who just continued to get better and forced his way into the national conversation.
“You could tell that he really spent a lot of time working on his skill set, trying to improve his jump shot and really developing from a power forward to a small forward or a guy that could play out on the perimeter,” Daniels said. “I don’t think any player in the 2018 class closed as well as Nassir Little did, and what I mean by that is the constant improvement.”
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams already says Little is one of the most athletic kids he has ever coached, citing specifically his jumping ability around the basket. Williams has been a head coach in college basketball since 1988, so that is high praise.
“He plays hard, he goes to get the rebound, he gets better every week,” Williams told SN at ACC Media Day. “I would say probably his best practice that he has had was yesterday, so I like those guys that keep getting better instead of hitting a wall. He is an athlete who can shoot the basketball that instinctively gives it up. He doesn’t have to hold it for three more dribbles and say ‘Should I throw it to that guy? Well, he’s not exactly open, maybe I should just keep it.’ He makes the play instinctively.”
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Despite Little’s obvious talent, he won’t necessarily be counted on right away to carry the offensive load. That will be reserved for the trio of seniors consisting of forward Luke Maye and guards Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson.
Johnson can already sense the qualities he possesses, which have helped put his basketball development on the fast track.
“He’s intelligent, he’s eager to learn and I think he cares a lot about his teammates, he cares a lot about what we want to accomplish as a basketball team,” Johnson said. “He is an easy guy to get along with. I think he can get along with anybody and he has got along with everybody so far. He’s got a great personality, he’s funny and he’s serious when he needs to be and he brings a good attitude to practice every day. I think those are all encouraging signs.”
Roy Williams is a fan of the blend of old and young his team has. It’s a rare luxury in college basketball to pair up a can’t-miss freshman like Little with a National Player of the Year candidate in Maye.
“I like the youthful exuberance, the guys who haven’t done it before who really think they can and want to try it every day and then I like having Kenny, Luke, and Cam, guys who have done it already,” he said.
Even the most hyped freshmen will have a learning curve to get used to the game at the college level, but Kenny Williams told reporters at media day that once Little picks that up, he will take off.
“He’s so explosive, he’s so athletic that it can open up so much more in the open court, in the half court,” he said. “You have to worry about him. He makes defenses worry about him. It will open it up for everybody else.”
The Tar Heels have yet to step onto the court for a game, but if there is one way they can sum up Little’s presence, it’s what happens when they have gone against him in practice.
“He’s got a pretty good first step, and just from watching, one thing you can’t let him do is get a free lane to the basket and if he does, just get out of the way, make a smart decision,” Johnson said.
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