Q&A: Nassir Little on Blazers' struggles, his development, GM change

Q&A: Nassir Little on Blazers' struggles, his development, GM change

Nassir Little is in the midst of a breakout season, and his confidence is soaring.

The 21-year-old is playing the best basketball of his NBA career, averaging 8.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.7 steals while shooting 47.7% from the field (all of which are career-highs). 

The three-year NBA pro has shown flashes of brilliance recently. Against the Golden State Warriors earlier this month, Little had a very efficient 18 points in the first half alone. He also had a 16-point performance (shooting 70.0% from the field and 66.7% from three) against the Sacramento Kings. And in Portland’s win over the Houston Rockets in mid-November, he had a 13-point, 14-rebound, 2-steal outing.

"Nas brings something to the table that nobody else on our team can bring to the table," Damian Lillard said. "Super talented, humble, great teammate. He just wants to do the right thing and he wants to win. You see him hit a three, then get a steal in transition and then he's dunking on people; get an offensive rebound and get an and-one; get a deflection, block a shot. He just does so many things and he's such a well-rounded player. To be so young and still finding his way in the league, he's huge for our team.

"There are so many things that he's doing on the court where I'm like, 'Man...' When the ball is loose and I see people chasing it, I expect him to get it. When I see him put his head down and go to the rim, I'm expecting him to finish. I've got a lot of faith in what he brings to our team... To see him do what he's doing, it's exciting to me and that's the kind of effort we need from him." caught up with Little to discuss his breakout season, his development, the Blazers’ struggles, Portland’s midseason firing of Neil Olshey, playing for Chauncey Billups and much more.

You’ve been playing really well lately and you’ve had some impressive games. Do those performances boost your confidence? And where is your confidence level right now?

Nassir Little: “I don’t really get my confidence from those kinds of games, it really just comes from the work that I put in when nobody is watching. I think that’s the biggest thing. Those kinds of games are reassuring, but overall, I feel like my confidence came way before then. In regards to my confidence level this season, it’s the highest it’s been in a while — since high school. I’m confident in the shots I’m taking and the plays I’m making. And as that continues to develop, it’ll just continue to grow.”

During the pre-draft process, you had an intense training regimen that I got to witness firsthand. Since you mentioned the work that nobody sees, can you walk me through what a typical day looked like for you last offseason?

Little: “I would wake up around 6 or 7 a.m. and I’d drive about 30 minutes to get a lift in. I’d lift and then go straight to another gym where I’d get shots up. After that, I’d come back home, and then at night, I’d go shoot again or do ball-handling and passing [drills] or play pick-up (just for my feel and to get more cardio in). I was doing that pretty strictly. Most days, I was in the weight room, in the gym and then I’d get a night session in at the gym. I was doing a lot this past summer, but it’s definitely helped me and paid off.”

From your first day in the NBA to now, how much have you developed and changed as a player?

Little: “Man… It’s been a huge leap from my first year to now. I think the biggest thing for me is probably just being a more confident player. I think when you play with confidence, it forces the defense to play you more honestly. Obviously, I’ve improved my shot significantly and although the percentages aren’t super high right now, I’m a threat to shoot the ball so guys are having to guard me as a shooter. I’m super athletic and I’m really good at getting downhill to the basket. Having the ability to do both is going to be big time. I’ve also shown flashes of [being able to] create my own shot in the mid-range area; I think I have a really good mid-range game and that’s kinda been on display this season. As I continue to grow and develop, that stuff will show more and more.”

I’ve talked to a number of NBA players who struggled with their confidence early in their career because they went from always being the best player on the court to barely playing. What was that adjustment like for you, and how did you ultimately get your confidence back to where it’s at now?

Little: “For me, my year at North Carolina wasn’t the smoothest year for myself as a player or just overall. But as tough as that year was for me, I think it ultimately paid off in regards to thickening my skin to those type of situations and learning how to deal with not getting the minutes you want and feeling like you aren’t being utilized the way you could be and feeling like you’ve just gotta go harder in order to get what you feel like you deserve. So, as tough as it was, I was very fortunate that I went through it then because when I got into the NBA, I was very humble; I didn’t expect much and I was willing to do whatever [was asked of me] and I was realistic in understanding that I may not play much that year. I just continued to do my part, control what I can and not let it discourage me. I think that was big for me. Going into my rookie year, my expectations were what they were and I just knew that I had to work hard.

"I did get an opportunity [to play] during my rookie year due to injuries, so I definitely got a good amount of experience too. But like I said, even though I wasn’t playing much and I did struggle with confidence in my rookie year, I just continued to work and I was getting better and better, and that’s when my confidence slowly started to grow. And then last year, I think the turning point of my career was my 30-point game against Milwaukee. From that day on, I just feel like I’ve been different, you know what I’m saying? That kinda reassured me of what I can do as a player even at the highest level, and I think it let me know that anything I want to achieve is possible because I’ve already done it in a sense.”

You make a lot of highlight plays. Can you feel the momentum shifting in the arena when you dunk on someone or have a big block? 

Little: “For sure, man. I feel like that’s kinda been my big thing this entire season. Like, every time I come in the game, it’s just like a spark; I can just feel it. It’s like an electric feeling. I feel like when I make these plays, I can feel the vibrations of everybody just raising. It’s kind of crazy. I think another type of play that I make often that’s kinda like that is when I get an offensive rebound and then somebody hits a three. The offensive-rebound-kickout three is one of the best kind of plays to make. I like those plays even more because it’s all an effort thing. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m outworking [you] and showing I want to be on the court.’ It’s a really good feeling.”

Do you have a favorite highlight play?

Little: “I would say, as of late, my block against Golden State. When I did it, it was like, ‘Whatever.’ But when I rewatched that play against Golden State where I blocked that dunk, that play was crazy, man. Because I had fallen down and I was on the other side of the basket, and for me to get up and block that was just crazy to see. I was amazed at myself for even trying to block it; that type of stuff makes me proud of myself, I’m not even gonna lie, just in the sense of giving everything I’ve got to my team. I think that’s something to be proud of: that you’re willing to sacrifice your body and [risk] potentially getting dunked on just to try to make winning plays. I think that type of stuff helps build the culture that we want in Portland, so that’s probably the best play I can think of from recently. My dunk against Houston is up there too… I want to dunk on and block everybody. (laughs)"

Larry Nance Jr. and some of your other teammates have talked about how your energy and work ethic are contagious. Have you noticed that your hustling increases the energy of the players around you?

Little: “Most definitely — in college [too]. I think at the NBA level, it’s even more crucial because we play so many games that it’s kinda hard to get up for every game. In college, you’re playing twice a week, so every game is a big game and you’re eager and looking forward to playing and everyone in that environment is excited that you’re playing. In the NBA, there are 82 games and you’ll be in certain cities and playing against certain teams where the NBA [game] just isn’t where the fans really want to be, so the energy is low. You’ve gotta figure out ways to get yourself up for those kind of games because all of these games matter. So, I think my teammates feel it when you’ve got a guy who’s out there diving on the floor and screaming and yelling and showing energy and playing hard defense and rebounding and boxing out, you kind of want to raise your [energy] level. You don’t want to get left behind or feel like your teammate is running through a wall for you but you’re not doing the same for him. I think me doing that and leading by example is really important.”

Chauncey Billups has raved about how coachable you are. Some young players think they know everything, but you seem like you want to learn new things from your coaches. Has that always been the case?

Little: “I’ve always been a very coachable player — I would even say sometimes to a fault. Growing up especially, I would be so coachable to the point that I wouldn’t make the instinctual play because I’d be trying to be coachable and do what the coach wants. We talked about confidence and stuff like that, I think that’s kind of what my issue was: trying to do things so right to the point that I forget that I’m the player who’s making the plays on the court and I gotta just be in tune with the game and make the play that I feel is right. I’ve matured in that sense, but I’ve always been coachable. I’ve always listened and been eager to learn. It’s consistent across my entire life. I’m eager to learn in all fields of life.

"I was really good in school and I always wanted to understand things. I was always asking questions, even if it seemed obvious because I just wanted to make sure. I’ve always been that kind of person. I’ve been just soaking up everything that Chauncey has been telling me because he understands what it’s like to be a player, so he’s coaching but he’s doing it from a player’s perspective, you know what I’m saying? Even if it’s a bad play, he’s going to understand why I made the play that I made — he’s not just gonna get mad at me. If I take a bad shot, he’s going to understand why I took that shot; maybe I was feeling good, maybe I hit two in a row so I wanted to shoot the third. He’s going to understand those kinds of things, and it’s just been a great dynamic.”

I’m 30 years old, so I grew up watching Chauncey and loving his game. You’re nine years younger than me, so did you get a chance to watch much of Chauncey during his playing days? 

Little: “I do remember watching Chauncey play, actually pretty vividly. I don’t know what the significance was, but I remember always being a big fan of his. I don’t know why I was… I mean, obviously he was really good, but growing up, I was only in tune with the players that my dad was watching. But for some reason, I remember watching Chauncey a lot and loving the way he played the game. It’s been super surreal to have the opportunity to play for him and just be part of this new process.”

This Blazers team has a lot of talent and I think you’re better than your 13-19 record indicates…

Little: “For sure.”

What do you guys need to do to get back on the right track and turn things around?

Little: “I think when you go through these types of situations, it’s really just mental at this point. Early in the season, it was a lot of conversations about how we’re not playing hard enough, we’re not playing with enough energy and we’re not playing with enough heart. But I genuinely feel like these past [two weeks], that hasn’t been the case; I think we’ve played hard in every game, we’ve competed, we’ve scrapped as hard as we can, but now it’s a matter of just, like, getting out of that mindset of, ‘Man, things aren’t going our way.’ Even though they’re not, we gotta shift our mentality to, ‘As tough as it is, even when the odds are against us, we’re going to overcome this.’ Once we get that kind of mentality, we’ll start to win these games. But right now, it’s like we’re fighting and then one [bad] play happens and we just become so deflated because with our mentality, we’re kind of expecting things to go wrong at some point. We gotta just get out of that because when you subconsciously think that, it allows stuff like that to happen. We just gotta keep our heads up and keep pushing forward and once we turn the tides, I believe we’re going to go on a run, for sure."

It’s really rare for a team to fire their general manager in December, but this was obviously a unique situation (as Neil Olshey was let go after an investigation into his behavior in the workplace). As a player, what was it like to go through a front-office shake up midseason?

Little: “I mean, obviously, I had never experienced anything like that. I think, for us, having Joe Cronin as the interim GM made the process a lot simpler than it looks. Joe is familiar, he’s been with the organization and we’ve all had a relationship with Joe previously. So, although the transition seemed kind of abrupt, it was a smooth one because it was a familiar face in the office and it wasn’t a situation where we had learn somebody and they had to learn us, you know what I’m saying? Joe knows how things have been going and he understands the context of the team, so it hasn’t been too bad. At the end of the day, we have to focus on the court and just do our jobs to the best of our abilities.”

Aside from the front-office drama, there have been so many rumors surrounding this team since last offseason from Damian Lillard’s future, to the possibility of C.J. McCollum getting dealt, to other trade rumors. As a player, I’m sure that can be annoying. How do you deal with trade rumors and what’s it like to be on a team that’s constantly been in the rumor mill?

Little: “I think in this day and age, it’s virtually impossible to block it out. It’s every day — you’re in an article about [the possibility of] getting traded or somebody is saying to trade this guy or that guy, and I’d be lying if I told you that we don’t hear it or that it doesn’t affect us at all. At the end of the day, we’re people. I get the excitement of trades and the eagerness to talk about them, but you’re talking about people having to move their families and basically break off relationships that they’ve built over the course of time and have to start a whole moving process and adapt to a whole new situation. It’s just a lot of things that go into getting traded as a player and those things don’t really get taken into account [by fans], but at the end of the day, we all know what it is. It’s a part of the business and it’s just one of those things that come with it, so you just have to try it to block it out to the best of your ability and don’t let it consume you and just understand that it is what it is and the team is going to do whatever they feel like they need to do. And that’s just kind of how we have to deal with it.

"Some people have kids that go to school locally and they have friends out here [that they have to leave]. Some guys get traded twice within two weeks, so their families don’t go with them because they don’t know where they’re going to end up. There are a lot of different dynamics that are very taxing on somebody’s mental when you get traded, but like I said, that’s part of it and it just comes with [the job]. You gotta handle it the best that you can.”

With the Nassir S. Little Youth Foundation, your goal is to help kids train for their future career and realize their full potential. Can you explain what that entails?

Little: “Basically, growing up, I wanted to pursue basketball but training, team fees, travel fees, shoes and all of that stuff costs money. And it was tough on my parents because they had to try to figure out how to pay for all of those things. I’ve heard people say that they could’ve been better at something, but they just couldn’t afford the extra-curricular thing that they were interested in. And it’s for all interests. I remember during my freshman year, there was a science camp and one of my friends wanted to go, but he couldn’t afford it. [The foundation helps] with things like that. If you’re a kid who’s super into music, but you can’t afford to rent or buy the instruments… Kids who can’t afford the art tools or classes that they need… Basically, what my foundation does is help those kids receive that funding they need to hone in on their craft and maximize their potential.”

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