Going into the season, this year’s version of the Tar Heels was loaded on paper. Coby White, Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson, and Luke Maye were all touted as dangerous offensive weapons, with Garrison Brooks being able to do a lot of what he’s asked to do very well. In a perfect world, Sterling Manley would’ve been able to give good to very good minutes off the bench to spell Brooks, Leaky Black would’ve been able to continue being productive going into the postseason, and Seventh Woods would’ve found ways to avoid the Heels having such a significant drop-off in offensive production whenever he was in the game.
Alas, there were things that definitely happened as scripted, and there were things that did not. While we could go into detail in terms of what did and didn’t happen for the players mentioned above, there is one player that I omitted from my rambling. The Sixth Man of the Year is someone who was arguably a polarizing player for the Tar Heels not because anybody hated him or his game, but because it was largely misunderstood what he was actually able to do for the team on average and what he was unable to do thanks to some bad luck during the season. I am talking, of course, about Nassir Little.
By now, we all know the story of Nassir Little’s freshman journey during his time at UNC. He was a projected top-five NBA Draft pick going into the season who had everyone’s expectations set extremely high, maybe even unfairly high thanks to what was happening with that team in Durham. Let’s be honest: UNC fans aren’t used to having projected top-five NBA Draft picks in Chapel Hill these days, and so right out of the gate there was some chatter when Cameron Johnson got the start over Little from some fans and media alike. Many fans / analysts that follow the team closely, however, knew exactly why things played out like they did — Cameron Johnson was a 2.0 version of himself and it was clear early on that he was going to have a special season (and he did). Little was aware of this too, and that is why we never heard one complaint about his role as the sixth man for what was a really good basketball team.
When taking a look at the numbers, Little had a productive, efficient season. He finished the year averaging 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, and shot 48% from the field. Going back to my comment about what was happening at Duke, RJ Barrett in comparison shot 45% from the field and took 702 shots compared to Little’s 273. This isn’t to say that Little had a better season than Barrett, but what this does show is that the claims that Little’s season was anything short of productive are a bit misguided, at the very least from an offensive production standpoint.
Nassir Little’s best performances arguably came from the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. We saw a player that was able to get to the rim whenever he wanted to, played hard on defense, and in the case of the Washington game, and was able to help out on the glass. Against Iona, Little finished with 19 points and 4 rebounds and shot 69.2% from the field. In the game against Washington, he finished with 20 points and 7 rebounds off 72.7% from the field. He truly was the most important player for the Tar Heels in the tournament, which is why it had to be extremely frustrating for him to get sick just days before the Sweet Sixteen game against Auburn.
He stated after the game that wasn’t able to breathe well during the game, and one can imagine he was still experiencing some of his flu-like ailments. It was an ending that basically summed up his entire season: he was a very important part of the team that had a string of bad luck in the form of injuries and a poorly-timed illness. Every time he was able to figure things out it seems like his body got in his own way and created some form of a setback. Regardless, Little’s impact on the team was one that was more than deserving of the Sixth Man award. His willingness to help in any way he could off the bench and to be a true teammate is something that is unfortunately rare in a player of his skillset in the OAD era, and it is something that is worth appreciating.