Nassir Little is just fine, everybody. Despite his struggles in West Raleigh on Tuesday night, the Florida native is putting together a decent— if statistically disappointing and occasionally frustrating— freshman season.
In the modern era of college basketball, where freshmen rule the headlines, the stat sheets, and, most importantly, the ESPN hype machine, it is easy to look at his relatively modest numbers and lean on the “Roy Williams can’t play with one-and-done talent” narrative.
Except that narrative is ludicrous.
College basketball was a little bit different in the 2004-05 season. Fresh off a veteran-laden Connecticut team featuring juniors Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor, senior Tariek Brown, and some well-placed underclassman talent such as Charlie Villanueva, Josh Boone, and Rashad Anderson winning the national title, there was a clear template to winning in college basketball: assemble a superstar veteran core, supplement with high-end freshman talent.
At this time, it was not necessarily called “one-and-done” talent— this was a time when momentum was building towards forcing players to play a year in college, but star players such as Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, Shaun Livingston, and Josh Smith could (and did) enter the draft out of high school.
Roy Williams’ 04-05 Heels fit that template to a tee. Raymond Felton, Sean May, and #32 were back as juniors. Seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, and Melvin Scott gave the Heels six very good upperclassmen. And there was a freshman by the name of Marvin Williams.
Williams was Roy’s first big recruiting coup— he pulled the 6’9 power forward out of Bremerton, WA, and by the time the NBA Draft tide had settled, Williams was the third-best freshman playing college basketball per 247Sports, behind Rudy Gay and Randolph Morris.
Needless to say, if you’re reading this, you know where I’m going. Williams was the 6th man on a national championship-winning Carolina team, he averaged 22 minutes, 11 points, 6.5 rebounds, and was the second pick in the 2005 NBA Draft.
Nassir Little was Roy Williams’ first big recruiting coup coming off the 2017 NCAA Championship and the clearance of any sanctions from the school’s seven-year anal probe. The 6’7 small forward was the third-ranked recruit in the 2018 recruiting class per 247Sports, and joined a veteran-laden team. Unlike Williams, who played behind arguably two of the more replaceable starters in Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel, Little happens to play behind the 2018-19 Heels’ most indispensable senior starters— All-American Luke Maye, and best-player-on-the-team Cameron Johnson.
Fourteen years is a long time, and a lot has changed in college basketball. We’re now firmly entrenched in the one-and-done era, as we’ve seen players too good to be in college firmly grasp the national spotlight— Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, etc., etc., etc. Kentucky won a national championship behind elite OAD talents including Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the #1 and #2 players taken in the subsequent draft. Duke won one with three star freshmen of their own— Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones.
College basketball is now a freshman-centric sport, both in coverage and an inordinate amount of the talent. Relative to the amount of NBA All-Star/MVP ballot/All-NBA team appearances for those players, their NCAA Tournament success is lacking. The two teams aforementioned are the only ones who won a game on a Monday night in April.
Of the 13 champions since Marvin Williams’ 2005 team, one can point to upperclassman studs with the occasional superstar freshman playing a complimentary role in hoisting the trophy. While the off-court focus has shifted, the on-court template for building a champion has remained largely the same.
Why are we making this comparison? Because Marvin Williams and Nassir Little are REMARKABLY similar college basketball players.
- Third-best player in the freshman class? Check.
- Small forwards or stretch 4’s, era-dependent, and playing behind two accomplished seniors? Check.
- Putting up almost precisely the same numbers through 15 games? See for yourself. Shouts to DadgumBoxScores for having sufficient archival data to do this research.
The baseline stats are admittedly somewhat rudimentary, and don’t tell the entire story, but for comparison’s sake they provide a clear image of two eerily similar players.
Nas’ struggles are well-documented— defensive lapses, struggling perimeter shooting, and a difficulty adapting to the flow of the offense. Those same complaints can be extracted from Marvin’s numbers. Through 15 games, he was a 22% three-point shooter, and was a fouling liability— only towards the end of December did he start surviving 20 minutes without picking up at least three fouls.
Little? Not as prone to picking up fouls (though that is mostly due to him playing more “3”), just as bad from three-point range (21.4%), and at times forcing things or getting lost in the flow of the offense.
These things happen. Roy Williams’ system has a higher learning curve for freshmen, because the player development and coaching he provides actually pays off— whereas at other schools a talented freshman may be buried on the bench for his career if he doesn’t show out right away.
When things clicked for Marvin, there wasn’t really a “light comes on” moment— instead, it was an increase in productivity and consistency in the second half of the year.
In the last 15 games of that season, his minutes remained largely the same, but his numbers became more consistent and less variable— he was held under 12 points just four times in the last 15 games, had less than 5 rebounds just twice, shot 53.7% from the floor while adding the three-pointer to his arsenal (37% in the final 15 games of the regular season), and increased his points and rebounds per 40 to 23.3 and 11.9.
His peak games were subtle— 15 and 10 in just 16 minutes in a win against Virginia, followed by a season-high 20 on 5-of-8 shooting versus State. There was never a legendary 30+ point performance, just a consistent, steady 12 to 15 points a night (he landed between those two figures 10 times in the final 15 games).
His 19-point scoring average in the first three rounds of the tourney put him squarely in the crosshairs of NBA talent evaluators, and he was gone— despite only scoring 16 points combined in the final three games.
Nassir Little is already squarely in the crosshairs of NBA talent evaluators, and prior to the State game was showing similar progress— going 10/17 from the floor, getting to the line, and making an impact on both ends of the court in the Davidson, Harvard, and Pitt games.
The key for Little will be more games like those three— a consistent output from Williams was the difference between a “lost” player and one who is remembered fondly as a vital cog to a national championship team. His minutes will likely not increase by any substantial margin, but in order to make good on his promise, his consistency and efficiency will have to.
Given Roy Williams’ track record with player development, its not long before we see the Nassir Little we all anticipated.