Beginning his third season in the NBA, experience has been
Nassir Little’s greatest teacher.
He admits that, as a young player, being out on the floor was
exciting and fast-moving. Getting used to such an environment with
reps over the last two seasons, he agrees, has made him feel more
comfortable over time.
“With anything in life where you do it over and over, it becomes
more second nature, less thinking, more instinctual,” Little told
BasketballNews.com prior to the Portland Trail Blazers’ 107-104
defeat in Cleveland on Wednesday.
Unfortunately, this was a contest in which Little saw a
season-low in minutes played (10:55), and one that resulted in
Portland’s third straight loss.
On the bright side, though, Little is determined to make his
presence felt by controlling what he can control. This all started
with a conversation he had with new Blazers head coach Chauncey
Billups prior to training camp. It was an open discussion on the
team’s expectations of him with two particular focuses — offensive
rebounding and “playing extremely hard.”
“He's accepting everything. All the coaching that we give him,”
Billups said. “Very coachable. I think a lot of players in the
league, especially young guys, when their shots are not going or
when they're not getting shots, their enthusiasm changes. They
don't play as hard. I told him very early on, 'We don't know. You
might get two shots tonight, you might get eight, depending on how
the game is flowing. That can't change how hard you play, how
focused you are. And he's done a good job with that.
“I think it's something that you expect from him. When you see a
guy playing that hard, that's how you build trust. You know that
you're gonna be able to trust him every time you put him out there.
He's gonna play extremely hard, he's gonna give you all he has. He
doesn't have off nights with that. You can have off nights shooting
and this and that. When you're playing hard, you don't have off
nights with that part of it. So that's something that as a coach,
you love to have."
Message received. Even with the recent anomaly, Little ranks
17th in the NBA in offensive-rebound rate (9.7%). Giving a quick
tip of the cap to Stevie Cozens on Twitter, dig
some more and you’ll see something quite notable; There are only
three players at his position who are in the top-20 of the
“Offensive rebounding is huge, man. It's getting extra
possessions, you know what I'm saying? In a sense, it's like
getting turnovers,” Little said. “So just getting extra
possessions, getting extra points... It's one of the best ways to
get open three-pointers; we got really good shooters. And that
could be like six, nine points a game. That could be a huge
difference. So just me trying to impact the game, some way,
somehow, and just trying to make myself be assertive. So that's
what I do."
It seems pretty simple to secure the basketball and provide
second chances, but don’t think for a second that there isn’t
strategy involved in doing so.
“Rebounding is a skill. It's a talent just like scoring the
ball, dribbling the ball. It's a talent, and it's more so just
having a knack for like where the ball's gonna go,” Little
explained. “I'm familiar with my teammates. I can tell how the
ball's gonna come off [the rim], or even if I don't get it, I know
what type of positioning I need to get, and I can just have a good
sense of tracking where the ball's gonna go based on who's shooting
“Or even if they make it, I know where it would go probably if
they miss. It's just kinda like a feel for it, and yeah, it's
effort. It's crashing, waiting 'til a guy turns his head and then
taking another route to the basket. They shoot a three, kinda
staying out towards the perimeter, things like that. That type of
stuff all plays a part."
Billups credits Little’s will to outwork the opposition.
“Those balls are coming off and he's just going after it. He's a
gifted athlete. He's quick, he's fast. Obviously, when he jumps,
he's very explosive,” Billups said. “Most people in the NBA, even
us [coaches], when a ball is shot, most people look at the ball.
And that's when he starts to do his work. If you're looking at the
ball, you can't be hitting me. So he's figuring that part of it
out, and he's just beating guys to those opportunities.”
“Just his intensity,” added Blazers teammate Larry Nance Jr. “He
comes out, grabs a rebound... he hypes himself up. So he's kinda
screaming and yelling, and it's impossible to watch him fight that
hard for an offensive rebound and be that intense about his play
and us be lackadaisical about it. We've got to lift each other
Along with Nance, Little is a part of a Portland bench that
leads the NBA with a 50.9% field-goal percentage, and a unit that’s
boosting the team with just over 37 points per game. Typically when
one member of the Blazers’ All-Star-caliber backcourt of Damian
Lillard and CJ McCollum has gotten a breather, Portland has
suffered in the past. This season, not so much.
Anfernee Simons is turning up his volume and cashing in on shots
with a career-best 64.6% True Shooting percentage, while the newbie
frontcourt of Nance and Cody Zeller has clicked seamlessly on both
ends. Then, there’s Little’s corner catch-shooting success
(5-for-8) and aforementioned hustle that makes it all work
“When Dame and CJ aren't on the court... those guys have the
ball in their hands a lot, they make big-time shots,” Little said.
“I think for us, with the coaches being so straightforward with
what they want from us, or just getting better looks. You know, we
don't have a lot of guys breaking guys down 1-on-1. Ant's coming
off screens wide-open just shooting it. Myself, I just shoot it if
I catch it. Larry's finishing in the paint, hitting open shots. So
we just take good shots as a unit, and I think that's why we have
such a high field-goal percentage.
“I think Larry and Cody have been great, man. They play hard.
Myself, I play hard. We all play hard together. When you have a
unit like that out there together, there's no letdown from when the
starters come off. So I think it's been very helpful. On the
offensive boards, they've been great. Defensively, they've been
great. The hustle plays. All the little things. I think we've all
done a good job of just chipping in, so it's been good.”
Among Portland’s four-man lineups to play at least 40 minutes
together, the quartet is easily tops on the team with a plus-12.9
“Energy. I think that's it,” Nance said. “Nas comes in and plays
with so much energy. Obviously, Ant plays with a lot of energy.
Cody getting after every ball and myself, that's a lot of what I've
prided myself on for the past few years. I think playing with a
certain level of intensity. I think we've got some rangy defenders
as well. So that group is looking to provide a spark every time we
check-in and so far, we're doing a pretty good job of it."
“I do expect for that to continue to happen,” Billups added. “I
think when you have a starting unit like ours, you expect to be
playing just as good or close to any other starting unit. I feel
like we have an advantage coming off of our bench with the pace
that they play at, with the speed, with how hard they play. Our two
bigs that come off play with great IQ out there; they're
ball-movers. Ant's having a great season. Nas. So I expect to have
an advantage there most nights coming off the bench."
Expand the combination to five with Lillard, and it’s far and
away the Blazers’ best. Compared to all other
lineups in the NBA that have shared a minimum of 20 minutes,
the Lillard-Simons-Little-Nance-Zeller mix has the highest
rebounding percentage (66.7%) and second-highest net rating
Keep in mind that this success is with a currently-struggling
Lillard, too. Despite his jump shot continuing to plague his
scoring load, however, his assist numbers are high and he’s taking
care of the basketball. There is also the fact that Lillard is
dealing with a core injury.
But Lillard refuses to use it as an excuse.
“I always look at struggles as an opportunity to show my true
character,” Lillard said to start his long-winded, open-ended response to
his slump. “...So personally, I embrace it.”
It’s to no one’s surprise to see Lillard take ownership of his
own shortcomings — especially not Little, who’s gotten to know the
superstar guard and has already heard what was just publicly said
behind closed doors.
“It ain't nothing new. I've had the pleasure of knowing Dame for
a few years now,” Little said. “I remember even before this, before
the season had started, I was just asking him, 'How do you handle
bad games?' And the same things that you guys are hearing now, he
told me when he was playing some of the best basketball of his
life. That's how I know he's such an authentic guy; that, when he
was killin' like we all know he does, he was telling me the same
things that you guys are hearing now — how it's part of the
“You can't want one side of something and then get rid of the
other because it's impossible for anything to exist like that. You
need to miss in order to make shots, and vice-versa. So it's just a
part of the game, and I respect how you don't ever, like, see it on
his face with how he interacts with everybody. It definitely is a
struggle. He's gonna get through it. But as he's going through it,
he doesn't let it affect the way he moves."
Stumbling back to the Northwest at 3-5 following a winless road
trip out East, the Blazers are looking to right the ship with some
home cooking the next two games. Little will do his part, as will
the rest of the team, to pick up its loyal, fearless leader as he’s
done so many times in the past.
Now that the roles have been reversed, Portland can’t wait to
see Lillard get back to “Dame Time” to see this group’s true
“At the end of the day, Dame, he's our guy,” Little said. “For
us to be as good as we can be, we just need him to be himself. Not
to say that he's not, but once he gets that groove, I think we're
gonna be good, and I think when we all get going and all get
flowing together, I think we're gonna be a really good team."