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UNC Basketball: Nassir Little’s role with the Tar Heels highlights a bigger issue with college basketball

The college basketball world is losing focus on what it’s intended to be.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Wofford Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Every college basketball season there’s a storyline that tends to follow each team along the way. Some storylines are as minor as Nate Britt learning how to alternate between shooting hands over the summer, and some grab a lot of attention, such as the athletically and physically gifted Zion Williamson. Well, this year for UNC, the storyline falls somewhere in the middle of the two examples, but it is one that wouldn’t likely be a story 15-20 years ago. I am, of course, referring to Roy Williams and his utilization of Nassir Little.

It is no secret at this stage of the season that Nassir Little had high expectations placed on him before he even set foot on Wofford’s court at the beginning of the season. He was the highest ranked high school prospect that Roy Williams was able to land since Harrison Barnes, and it is widely predicted that he will be a NBA lottery pick. The issue, however, is that Little knowingly joined a team that is known for making players work for their minutes. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well for many people in the college basketball world, it evidently is an issue.

For a couple of weeks now, the voices have gotten louder and louder about why Roy Williams won’t start Little and how he is once again holding his players back. It’s been coming from a little bit of everywhere, including within UNC’s own fan base. The not-so-surprising truth, however, is that it is not even close to being a problem within UNC’s own locker room. More importantly, from everything we’ve heard it hasn’t been an issue for Nas himself:

So then why is this happening? The answer is simple: the ongoing perception issue that has blinded college basketball for years now, and one that won’t be fixed until the one-and-done rule is eradicated.

In order to take a closer look at the issue, we’ll focus on a few things: Coby White and Nassir Little’s minutes for UNC so far, college basketball media, and the culture that the NBA produced within college basketball, whether by design or not. Let’s get started.

Nassir and Coby’s Minutes

Following UNC’s loss to Kentucky last weekend, Roy Williams addressed a report that he found questioning how he is handling Little’s role on the team. In response to the report, this is what Roy Williams had to say:

”I don’t care what the hell anybody thinks,” Williams said. “Think about this: If I’m holding the guy back, why am I playing Coby?”

Williams, seemingly frustrated, then repeated himself: “If I’m holding the guy back, why am I playing Coby?”

Williams went on to make more good points from there, but let’s focus on what he put emphasis on: Coby White, who is also a five-star top-tier freshman, is in the starting lineup for the North Carolina Tar Heels. In fact, the only game that he hasn’t started this year was the game against UNCW when he was dealing with an injury and Roy didn’t play him as a precaution. With this information alone, the claim that Roy Williams holds his players back is dead in the water. It’s also worth noting that White is playing over junior point guard Seventh Woods. Part of the reason that he is starting is that Woods is essentially an underclassman that just so happens to be a junior, thanks to all of the injuries he’s suffered in his college career. However, Roy has went on the record of saying that Coby White has just been simply doing better in his eyes.

When focusing on Little’s minutes, the notion that he needs to be in the starting lineup falls apart when you break down the facts of this year’s team. Starting with the obvious, Nassir Little plays the same position as Cameron Johnson, who is finally healthy for the first time since coming to Chapel Hill and has been playing very good basketball so far this season. He is currently the highest scorer on the team, averaging 16.6 ppg, and is shooting an unreal 49.1% from three. The senior has played a significant role in a majority of the games this year, and it’ll be very difficult for Little to find a way to steal the starting role away from him.

The next spot that Little may be able to occupy is the four spot, which is currently locked down by preseason All-American senior Luke Maye. Maye didn’t have the strongest start to his season, but has found his groove as of late. Maye has logged two double-doubles in the last three games, and all-around looks like he is playing with a lot more focus. Once Maye completely locks in, there’s not much of an argument that Little can take his spot.

Finally, there is the player that everyone is calling for Little to start in place for, and that is Garrison Brooks. The thing about Brooks is that he isn’t a double-double machine like most post players have been during Roy Williams’ tenure, but also he’s not in any different of a place than other big men have been before. Remember Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks during their first couple of years in Carolina blue? If you don’t, let’s just say that things weren’t always great with any of them, but ultimately all three of them played big roles in helping UNC make it to the Final Four. The big factor keeping Brooks in his starting role right now is defense, and that just so happens to be one of Little’s weaker points in his game. Kenny Williams will be the first to tell you that if you can be a game-changer on defense, you’ll get the minutes. However, has Nassir Little really been starved for minutes?

When looking at the amount of minutes that Little is currently averaging, the answer is no. Following the game yesterday afternoon against Davidson, Little is averaging 19.4 minutes per game, which is the fifth-highest average on the team. Prior to the game, Little was the sixth-highest in minutes, but the margin was still pretty thin between him and Brooks. So no, Nassir Little is not being held back by Roy Williams. In fact, Little has earned ample amounts of opportunity to display his skills to NBA scouts, fans, and in general, the entire country. So then, who is to blame for the unnecessary noise surrounding him? Part of the blame falls on the college basketball media.

The College Basketball Media

The college basketball media has been the a large source of what has been a lot of chastising of Roy Williams and how he has handled Nassir Little. In fact, during the ESPN2 broadcast yesterday of the Davidson game, the commentators mentioned the issue multiple times, and at one point the comment was made that “that’ll earn him some minutes” after Little dunked. It was painful, it was worthy of eye rolls, and most importantly, it fell in line with everything that’s been said for weeks now.

Here’s the problem: college basketball is in such a state to where successful upperclassmen aren’t a huge sell. Not often does ESPN or other media sources focus on juniors and seniors, but instead, all of the hype goes to freshmen that have a chance to be lottery picks in the NBA Draft. This year Duke has the Holy Grail of clicks and views on their roster in RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish, who were the first, second, and fifth-best players in the country coming out of high school according to 247 Sports’ composite ranking. Last year it was Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., and Marvin Bagley, the year before that was Lonzo Ball, and the list goes on. All of a sudden the sexy thing in college basketball is to be the best at recruiting, and not the best team in the country come March and April.

This is where the media has created quite a cluster in what is being presented, in that great classes of freshmen are what will get teams to the promised land, and if they don’t then they at least win the NBA Draft sweepstakes. It’s disappointing that it’s come to that, and that perception has blinded many from the fact that Roy Williams has actually been one of the best coaches of the past decade with two national championships, three national title appearances, and four trips to the Final Four. Roy Williams isn’t just a very good coach, he’s a Hall of Fame coach that has been at the very top of the Mount Rushmore of college basketball during his stay in Chapel Hill.

Nevertheless, the perception of Roy Williams has taken a beating for unknown reasons. He holds players back, he makes players take “fake classes”, he doesn’t get players ready enough for the NBA, and so on. Little will undoubtedly be bulletin board material for college recruiters, and the media outlets have done everything in their power to help support the narrative. College basketball culture is tainted, and the biggest source of blame falls on the NBA.

The NBA Domino Effect

The NBA’s one-and-done rule has been one that has been more or less a thorn in the side of just about everyone in the college basketball world. Team A was able to recruit the best player in the class? Expect him to leave after a year. Team B doesn’t have player X Y or Z go into the NBA Draft? They are a bad team for top recruits to play for. Team C has too many top freshmen? The really good freshman coming off of the bench is going to slam that school after leaving early for the draft (or transfer). It’s messy, it’s exhausting, and more importantly, it feels like it’ll never end.

Reports came out back in April that the NBA and the NBAPA will not get rid of the OAD rule until 2020 at the earliest. Months later, it was announced that 18 year olds were being allowed to play for the G-League straight out of high school on a $125,000 contract. The G-League solution felt more like a bandage than it did an operation on something that was broken, and also provided little incentive compared to the value that going straight into the NBA or going to college provides. Yes, $125,000 is more money than a year of tuition at a lot of institutions, but getting a scholarship for a year to play basketball and then potentially earn a big payout the year after ends up being a better option.

When it boils down to it, the NBA dropped the ball on the one-and-done rule. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has openly admitted it, and yet finding the solution has taken way longer than it should. The NBA’s bad decisions created a culture in men’s college basketball that is weird at best. At worst, it has become the Hunger Games of NBA prospects where colleges around the country have been battling it out, sometimes illegally, to have the best of the best play for their schools and have everyone around their country sing their praises.

This is the world that Nassir Little and Roy Williams reside in. It is not Roy’s fault, nor is it Nassir’s fault. Nassir Little has said multiple times now that he is at North Carolina to become a better player. Williams is doing everything he can to help Little achieve his goal, and to ultimately get him drafted whenever Little decides that it’s time to enter the draft. There isn’t a problem with Nassir Little’s role with the Tar Heels, there is a problem with college basketball.