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3 things Nassir Little must do to clinch a rotation spot with the Trail Blazers

Nassir Little, Trail Blazers

Nassir Little enters his third NBA season with the Portland Trail Blazers subject to relatively low expectations. The 25th overall pick of the 2019 draft played sparingly as a rookie, and barely got off the bench more last season despite making obvious all-around strides and Portland’s departed coach at one point publicly earmarking him regular playing time. The Blazers’ trade for Larry Nance Jr. last month is another potential obstacle in Little’s path to proving himself as a viable NBA rotation player.

But Terry Stotts is gone now, replaced by a coach in Chauncey Billups whose two-way schemes and overall basketball ethos aligns well with what Little theoretically brings to the table. After taking a more diligent, professional approach to diet and fitness this offseason, the 21-year-old believes his impressive collection of physical traits is even better, too.

“I’m faster, I’m quicker, I’m more explosive,” Little told Jason Quick of The Athletic. “I can run longer and jump higher for a longer period of time.”

That improved conditioning won’t just lead to more highlight-reel dunks and from-nowhere blocks when Little gets on the floor this season. Billups has assured the North Carolina product he’ll have every opportunity to earn a permanent rotation role, affording Little the chance to prove he’s much more than a tantalizing athlete absent the skills and understanding needed to help his team win consistently.

Here are three things Nassir Little must do in training camp, exhibition action and early in Portland’s regular-season slate to secure his place in the Blazers’ rotational hierarchy.

Knock Down Open Shots

Most optimism stemming from Little’s largely forgettable sophomore campaign comes from his newfound comfort splashing threes.

Billed as a non-shooter coming into the draft, Little completely overhauled his shot before last season, quickening a slow release and raising his launch point. The result wasn’t just league-average three-point shooting at 35 percent, but a major uptick in his rate of attempts. Nearly half of Little’s shots were from beyond the arc, the clear hesitance he showed letting fly as a rookie replaced with the confidence of a shooter who knew his hard work was paying off.

This just isn’t a shot he would’ve taken in 2019-20, especially with the knowledge it’s what the defense wanted.

Defenders won’t so readily dare Little to shoot this season like Giannis Antetokounmpo did above. Billups will no doubt give Little’s minutes to Tony Snell, a true long-range marksman, if he’s unwilling or unable to get up threes in tight windows.

Little flashed that ability last season, and his comparatively lagging development as a movement and off-dribble shooter matters less given the Blazers’ roster composition and the players he’ll be directly competing with for court time. Snell is one of the best standstill three-point shooters in the game, but offers no more shooting dynamism than Little while flying off screens or stepping behind picks off the bounce.

No single skill will matter more to Little’s career trajectory than spot-up shooting. If what he showed in that capacity while occupying an unpredictable nightly role last season was real, Little’s third go-around with the Blazers is bound to cement his status as a fixture of the team’s present and future.

Consistently Attack Downhill

What’s always separated Little most from other wings with developing jumpers and questionable ball skills is his explosive athleticism. His vertical jump came up just short of the vaunted 40-inch threshold at the 2019 draft combine, and Little’s ridiculous length—his wingspan measured over 7-foot-1 at the same event—makes him even more of a threat around the rim than that leaping ability indicates.

But getting in position to take advantage of those enviable tools is more than half the battle, and that’s where Little is poised to benefit most from operating in Billups’ movement-based offensive attack. Snell and Ben McLemore are extremely limited penetrators. The same goes for Anfernee Simons until he proves otherwise.

Little won’t be putting defenders in the blender with high-level ball-handling moves this season, but is more equipped than any player on Portland’s roster other than Lillard and Norman Powell to get all the way to the rim and finish. How many players in the league can attack close-outs with two downhill dribbles and finish through traffic with this type of authority?

Little’s bag as a dribbler and finisher is light. If he’s forced to change directions on the drive other than Euro-stepping, his forays to the paint are usually unsuccessful.

But that pointed sense of downhill driving as the defense scrambles is exactly what Billups wants from Portland’s supporting cast of perimeter players, and Little is the only one among them who provides it. Well, at least assuming his jumper stays true enough for defenders to run him off the arc.

Prove His Switchability On Defense

Little’s aforementioned length is supported by a naturally sturdy frame. He’ll enter training camp next week weighing in the low 220-pound range, over 10 pounds down from his playing weight last season. But Little maintains he’s stronger than ever, a development that combined with improved quick-twitch athleticism could make him Portland’s most versatile defender, Nance excepted.

Just how often Billups downsizes with Covington and Nance up front remains to be seen. Defensive concerns about the Blazers’ small-ball lineups would be at least somewhat alleviated, though, if Little’s perceived switchability becomes a nightly on-court reality. Slotting Little, Covington and Nance next to Lillard and C.J. McCollum comprises the Blazers’ ideal downsized quintet, but the former shoving Powell out of those units won’t be easy.

The same traits that make Little so intriguing as a switch defender extend to more traditional lineups, too. Portland’s three-guard starting lineup will be exploited against bigger teams that possess the playmaking wherewithal to force Lillard, McCollum or Powell into vulnerable help positions. Little is a much more imposing off-ball threat than those guys, his size and athleticism further buoyed by keen timing as a shot-blocker.

Nassir Little has the goods to be a real impact defender, switching across multiple positions without negative recourse and mucking up offense as a helper—just the type of support that could make him impossible to keep off the court when the Blazers need a stop.