Roy Williams got third-person angry on Wednesday night, and not for nothing. North Carolina had been strangled by Michigan for the final 15 minutes of what devolved into a 17-point road loss. Leaning atop a lectern at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, the exasperated coach blamed “the job that the head coach is doing with this team.” It was the Tar Heels’ first true misstep of the season, a stunning loss that said as much about the quality of their opposition as it did their own flaws, but Williams was beside himself nonetheless. “Right now, we stink,” he proclaimed. And so they stunk.
While one loss is far from fatal, North Carolina’s preseason hype has been slightly muted over the past week—there was a hard-fought loss to Texas in a high-scoring Thanksgiving duel that begat a drubbing of struggling UCLA, which begat whatever happened against Michigan. An estimable chunk of that excitement stemmed from the arrival of blue-chip freshman Nassir Little, a consensus top-six player in his class and the biggest fish Williams had landed since Justin Jackson in 2014. Little’s name had been dragged into the FBI’s goose chase of an investigation into top college basketball programs, but was cleared to help lead North Carolina during a season where the spotlight has mostly centered elsewhere on Tobacco Road.
In the framework of the NBA draft, Little, a high-scoring 6’6” wing with an impressive build, 7’1” wingspan and developing skill set, entered the season as a projected top-five pick in the eyes of many (he opened at No. 4 on SI’s preseason Big Board). He was a bit of a late bloomer who ascended to elite prospect status as a high school senior, his game apparently catching up to his tools. But as North Carolina has endured early ups and downs, his early struggles have been somewhat magnified. As the Tar Heels prepare to battle rival Duke for control of the ACC, Little, a presumptive one-and-done, has been cast, perhaps unfairly, as a foil to the Blue Devils’ trio of stellar first-years at his position.
While Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish have captivated the national spotlight and the eyes of pro scouts, Little’s college career has been off to a quiet start, functioning as North Carolina’s first guy off the bench and averaging 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds. Little began the season on more or less level footing with the Duke trio, and if everything were to break correctly, it’s not out of the question that he could become a top-three pick. “Man, it’s like they’re everywhere I look,” Little told Sports Illustrated when asked about his counterparts at Duke. “I definitely don’t mind it, man, because I like to surprise people, and I feel like I’m going to have a chance to do that.”
NBA executives continue to privately underscore the relative lack of elite talent in this draft, and that there might be room for another top player to crash the party at the top. But one of the primary challenges in projecting college prospects, and particularly freshmen, is determining how much weight to place on their individual situations. It would be easy to pile on Little and question his lofty reputation after he managed just four points on 1-of-5 shooting against Michigan. But after playing just 48.8% of minutes through seven games, Little has been inarguably tricky to assess due to the context of his environment. “He’s a bit scary, for sure,” as one executive put it.
Little’s playing time is less than befitting of a lottery pick, and not at all conducive to establishing much of a rhythm on the floor. Still, his slow start is not as surprising as you’d think, and not entirely his fault, either. Over the last five seasons, Williams has been hesitant to work freshmen into his rotations. Jackson, now with the Sacramento Kings, was the last frosh to finish a season playing more than half of the Heels’ available minutes back in 2014-15. When Little arrived on campus, two talented senior forwards, preseason All-American Luke Maye and sharpshooter Cam Johnson were in front of him on the depth chart. This Tar Heels group features a wealth of offensive talent: even after the Michigan loss, UNC remained fourth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com data. Their approach to scoring means anybody can eat on a given night, but doesn’t guarantee everyone their portions.
North Carolina employs a motion system, asking its forwards to screen for one another, trigger defensive shifts with creative off-ball cuts, and find ways to get loose for open jumpers. Coby White, another freshman, has been the primary ball-handler and shown off some potent (if streaky) deep shooting from the top of the arc to bolster the scoring. Johnson has been one of the best spot-up players anywhere, shooting 45% from three to start the season. Maye remains a uniquely effective gadget player up front, able to score at all three levels and function as a safety valve when Carolina’s ball movement stalls. Little is just one of many options in a flow-centric attack, so they aren’t exactly dialing up his number. Most of UNC’s shots come organically, and most opponents aren’t as well-equipped as Michigan to stop it.
Knowing Williams, Carolina may tweak the offense, but won’t reinvent the wheel. Little will simply have to get up to speed. “Your awareness has to be at a different level here,” Little explained. He has a grasp of his role—run the floor, screen and cut, identify and attack defensive mismatches and knock down open shots—but is still learning to play without the ball. It’s crucial to remember that UNC is playing without a true point guard after graduating stalwart Joel Berry and secondary playmaker Theo Pinson. White, the nominal point, is a freshman who’s wired to more score than make plays. Especially early in the season, that means the ball can stick a little bit and guys like Little, who see less of the ball, can get lost in the shuffle. The Heels’ infrequent isolations tend to come in late-clock situations, where White will create something off the dribble, or Maye will post or pop loose for a jumper.
Everyone struggled to find a rhythm against Michigan’s top-ranked defense, not just Little, who is confident he’ll become a multi-faceted contributor in due time. “I think I can do a lot more than I get credit for,” he says. “Being athletic, there’s definitely a wow factor, that’s the first thing people see, but I know I have a lot more to offer offensively than that.” His play off the dribble has not been great, but as a primarily straight-line driver, he’s often catching the ball on the wing without optimal spacing to attack the basket. Little would likely look better parked on the weak side of an NBA-style offense, where he could play off the catch and attack after defenses have already rotated. Part of the issue is he won’t get that opportunity until he gets to the league.
Little isn’t a shooter yet, but he’s made a respectable 10-of-22 jump shots, according to Synergy data. He has a solid base, can pull up off the bounce and releases the ball with touch, but it has yet to translate to the three-point arc consistently. He is still harnessing all of his tools, and has not always looked comfortable playing outside. Little admits he wants to prove himself as a long-range threat, and will have to keep shooting to do that. “You don’t want to perform trying to change people’s perceptions,” he says.
All things considered, Little’s bench role has brought more early-season scrutiny than most of the country’s other top prospects are facing after three weeks of games (UNC is now 6–2). Some NBA evaluators are preaching patience, while others see his early offensive struggles as indicative of potential risk. “They don’t use him the right way,” offered one Eastern Conference scout. “He’s got to start [games] soon.” The scoring ability and aggressive approach he showcased in high school are still fresh in the minds of many. “I view [coming off the bench] as just accepting what’s going on and what coach wants me to do,” Little says. “It’s not something I dive or look too deeply into. Obviously, I do want to start, but that’s not something that makes or breaks you. I just know I have to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
To understand why Williams has made his most talented player a reserve is to understand his reluctance to begin this season playing small. Recall that UNC crashed out in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament as a two-seed, falling to 7-seed Texas A&M by 21 points. They were outrebounded 50 to 36, and blocked zero shots as a team. That small-ball approach helped spearhead a quality run to the ACC tournament title game, but deploying the 6’8” Maye at the five eliminates any semblance of rim protection. Still, if the Tar Heels’ defense doesn’t show real improvement with a traditional big anchoring the paint, it may end up forcing their hand. That would be good news for Little, as logic would dictate he eventually joins the starting five at the expense of center Garrison Brooks, who struggled mightily in coverage against Michigan.
Carolina has played its smaller lineup of White, Kenny Williams (one of the better glue guys in college hoops), Little, Johnson and Maye just 6.2% of the time in their last five games, according to KenPom data, but having five players who can shoot and attack the basket makes the Tar Heels much more difficult to defend. The spacing is much more conducive to dribble-drives and quick reversals. They’re hardly running any pick-and-roll to begin with, so rolling out a bigger body like Brooks or 6’11” reserve Sterling Manley (neither of whom is a consistent threat to score) only goes so far. This scenario suggests the potential for one of the country’s best offenses to get even better. “When me and Cam are in together, I think that’s when we play some of our best ball offensively,” Little says, noting the value of interchanging and forcing opponents to adjust. “We’re both really skilled and I think it creates a lot of problems for defenses.”
For that shift to really work, the Tar Heels are going to have to contest shots better and do focused work on the defensive glass, enabling everyone to better get out and play on the break. Little’s most favorable opportunities have come in transition, where his strength and explosiveness shine driving to the rim, and where UNC already derives 29.1% of possessions. The sustainable success of the smaller lineups unsurprisingly hinges on Little, who has the body and agility to be a stopper and help corral rebounds, but has yet to put together consistent showings on those fronts. Johnson has size at 6’9”, but his lanky frame is ill-suited to guard athletic wings or stronger four-men. Little will need to take his versatility to heart, and become something of a utility player. “Your awareness has to be at a different level here. “You gotta pay attention to multiple things at one time, to a greater extent, especially defensively—you gotta be in the right place at all times,” he says.
It may not happen that way, of course—Williams doesn’t have a great deal of depth to play with barring an unexpected breakout from one of his bit players, and matchups will dictate which of UNC’s lineup combinations make sense. For Little, moving in with the starters is the obvious best-case platform, but he will simply have to make the best of his situation. By displaying more quality and polish on both sides of the ball, Little can begin to re-prove himself as Carolina continues on a grueling schedule, which includes December dates with Gonzaga and Kentucky before the grueling ACC slate begins. Many expect he will. But it’s clear enough at this point that his fit and role within the Tar Heels’ system—not all of which is under his control—are going to dictate the quality of his college sample. The variables stand to show how imperfect a science assessing players can be. And when quantifying Little’s value as the season rolls along, it will be even more pivotal to understand what you’re watching.