PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Trail Blazers rookie forward Nassir Little was introduced to the media on Monday and spoke about how happy he is to start his NBA journey in Portland.
"It's extremely exciting," he said. "First, being in the NBA itself. And looking at the roster, I think I have a real opportunity to come in right away and contribute."
Little was joined at the press conference by his mother and sister, as well as Blazers teammates Zach Collins and Gary Trent Jr. He said after a couple days in Portland, he's been impressed by how friendly the people are.
"People are really nice out here. Everyone's saying, 'Welcome to Portland. Welcome to Portland,'" he said. "I'm from Florida. People are nice out there but it's not like this."
The general consensus is that the Blazers got a steal when they drafted the North Carolina freshman with the 25th pick in the NBA draft last week. Little was projected to be selected between the ninth pick and the 13th pick the day of the draft, but unexpectedly slipped to the tail end of the first round.
Here's some of the reaction to Little falling to the Blazers:
- North Carolina coach Roy Williams: "I know one thing — he is the absolute steal of the draft."
- ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz: "Steal for Portland in Nassir Little."
- ESPN draft analyst Jay Bilas: "This is an absolute steal because Nassir Little has great potential. ... He's a steal. Portland got a steal in Nassir Little."
- Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard: "He's a steal for sure. That's a steal for us."
Little ended his high school career as the second-ranked player in the nation. He joined LeBron James as the only player to be named MVP of both the McDonald's All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic. In an early 2019 mock draft, shortly after Little had started his freshman season at North Carolina, ESPN projected him to be picked third overall.
The basketball court wasn't the only place Little excelled. He was also a stellar student athlete. On Monday, he recounted a time in middle school when he was struggling with his academics and decided that had to change.
"I told myself and my parents from this point on, I'll get only A's and B's the rest of my life," Little said. He ended up finishing high school with a 4.2 GPA and had a 3.9 GPA his freshman season at North Carolina.
"For me, that was important. It showed my self determination, and that was when I started to develop my work ethic," he said.
Little said Monday that his drive comes from being a perfectionist. "I want to be as good as possible at anything I put my time into," he said.
He had his choice of schools, but Little chose North Carolina, one of the best college basketball programs in the country, but also a school that isn't known for willingly handing playing time to freshmen. He admitted Monday that he struggled his freshman season.
Little didn't start a single game for the Tar Heels, playing behind two seniors in Cameron Johnson, the 11th pick in the draft, and Luke Maye. Little was a role player as a freshman, ranking sixth on the team in minutes per game at 18.2. His per-game averages of 9.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 26.9% shooting from the 3-point line don't jump off the stat sheet.
"For me, it was just trying to get through the year in the best way possible and be as productive as possible in the minutes I was given," Little said. "It was a struggle. Some ups and downs for me. But the kind of person I am, I get through the storm. I already know it's going to be good on the other side, so I just stay positive."
Upon further inspection, Little's freshman season doesn't look so bad. Per 40 minutes, he averaged 21.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks. He shot 47.8% from the field and even though his 3-point shooting was subpar, he projects to be a better shooter in the NBA. Scouts say Little has "promising mechanics and touch," and he shot well from the free-throw line, which can predict future 3-point accuracy in the NBA.
"He was a 77 percent free-throw shooter and we’ve found that free-throw shooting in college is more indicative of being a good shooter at the NBA level than 3-point shooting is at the college level,” Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey said Thursday after the draft.
What makes Little most intriguing as a prospect is his physical profile. He measured 6-foot-6 with a 7-1 wingspan and weighed in at 224 pounds at the draft combine. ESPN calls Little a "physical specimen" and a "terrific athlete."
Little's measurements compare favorably to Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, who was 6-7 with a 7-0 wingspan and 223 pounds at the 2016 draft combine, and Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, who was 6-7 with a 7-3 wingspan and 227 pounds at the 2011 draft combine.
Physically, Little appears to be ready to compete at the NBA level right now.
That can wait, though. For now, Little is focused on playing for the Blazers' summer-league team. He said practices begin next week, and he can't wait.
"This is the point where you're filled with hope," he said Monday. "You're ready to play that first game. I'm excited. I'm just trying to embrace it."