Nassir Little has heard that the NBA pre-draft process is daunting, but he feels he’s ready for anything that’s thrown at him. In fact, unlike some potential lottery picks, Little wants to face off against as many prospects as possible over the next month and a half – especially the wings currently projected to go higher than him. The 6-foot-7 small forward is confident that he can hold his own against his peers and he wants an opportunity to prove it.
“I feel like in these workouts, I’ll be able to showcase things that I haven’t been able to show as much in the past. I think I’ll wake a lot of people up,” Little told HoopsHype. “I’m an extremely hard competitor, so I’d love the opportunity to go against a lot of guys.”
Ask NBA players about their pre-draft experience and most will say some version of, “I’m glad I never have to go through that again.” Even prospects who had a good experience admit that it’s exhausting. For nearly two months, players live out of a duffel bag as they fly from city to city.
During the team workouts, prospects are put through the wringer. Teams want to test each individual’s stamina and resolve, and they want to see how each person performs when they’re absolutely drained. Sometimes, players have several workouts in one week, so they’re still extremely tired from their last workout when the next one begins. Days run together. By the end, all they want is two things: plenty of sleep in their own bed and for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to call their name.
That’s why NBA decision-makers are impressed when a player goes above and beyond during this process. For example, teams loved when Damian Lillard participated in the 2012 Draft Combine despite being projected as a Top-10 pick. Little understands that this is a chance to make a lasting impression.
“I’m a hard worker,” he said. “I just want to keep showing that, along with my desire to get better.”
Every day, Little wakes up at 6:45 a.m. and makes his way to his first training session. He does two workouts with his strength-and-conditioning coach Randy Hadley (one in the morning and one in the evening) that focus on his “conditioning,” “stretching,” “mobility,” and “strength.” He does two on-court workouts with his skills trainer Darryl Hardin (one in the morning and one in the evening) that focus on his “three-point shooting,” “ball-handling,” “shooting off-the-dribble” and more. He’s working on his craft around the clock.
The primary focus of Little’s workouts has been his shooting. This is the aspect of his game he wants to improve the most. During his lone collegiate season, he made just 0.4 threes per game while shooting 26.9 percent from beyond the arc.
After working on this every day for over a month, he seems more confident when he’s shooting. During a private workout that HoopsHype attended, he got hot and made 16 threes in a row at one point. If he can shoot like that in front of NBA teams, that will help his draft stock.
“I want to showcase my shooting ability; I feel like that’s an underrated part of my game,” Little said. “I’ve been working really hard on that and improving my consistency. I’m ready to display that.”
Little is attending the 2019 NBA Draft Combine from May 15-19. Then, he’ll have a chance to show off his hard work at his Pro Day in Las Vegas on May 27. After that, he’ll be traveling to hold private workouts with teams. Performing well in his team interviews and athletic testing may also help his draft stock. With a 7-foot-2 wingspan and 8-foot-9 standing reach, his measurements should also impress executives once they’re official.
Little described himself as “very self-motivated.” That label seems to fit, considering he became one of the top recruits in the country and still finished high school with a 4.2 GPA.
“Internally, I was always the kid who just felt like I needed to clean my room if it was getting messy; nobody had to tell me. I would tell myself that I needed to do my homework and get it done. Nobody had to force me to do it or anything like that,” he said. “That’s something that was just in me since I was a kid.”
Both of Little’s parents were in the military, which could be where he developed these characteristics. While Little insists that “they weren’t the type of parents who would make me wake up at 5 a.m. and tell me to make my bed immediately like a soldier,” it’s possible that growing up in that environment helped him develop those habits on his own.
When Little was 16 years old, he made the tough decision to move away from home. Leaving his parents was difficult, but he felt that transferring from Oakleaf High School in Orange Park, FL, to Orlando Christian Prep for his junior and senior years would help his on-court development.
“At 16, I moved away from my parents and went somewhere that was a new environment for me and I wasn’t the most comfortable, but it was the best decision for my basketball career,” Little explained. “I think that was probably the biggest sacrifice I’ve made to this day, and it was for basketball. There are day-to-day sacrifices too. In high school, I woke up every day at 5 a.m. to go work out. I was also sacrificing time to just chill or have fun at times. But I did it to be the best I could be at basketball.”
Changing schools did help raise his profile. After all, Rivals had Little ranked as the No. 2 overall recruit in the country behind only RJ Barrett. (Yes, Little was ranked ahead of Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish among others). Little was named MVP of the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game after recording a game-high 28 points (on 12-17 shooting) and leading his team to victory – even though the opposing team had Williamson, Barrett, Darius Garland, Coby White and Romeo Langford (all of whom are currently projected as Top-10 picks in this year’s draft).
After high school, Little decided to attend the University of North Carolina. Back in December, Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams told reporters that Little is the best athlete he’s ever coached: “Nassir’s [athleticism] is explosive. It is quicker. His fast twitch muscles are different.”
In his lone season at UNC, Little averaged 9.8 points (on 48.0 percent shooting from the field) and 4.6 rebounds in just 18.2 minutes per game. He didn’t start any games for the Tar Heels, which was a surprise considering he was one of the top recruits in the nation. During the private workout HoopsHype attended, he showed off that freakish athleticism that Coach Williams mentioned – throwing down a number of powerful dunks during a drill where he drove to the basket.
With that said, he just turned 19 in February and has a ton of untapped potential. Teams are excited about the player he could become in a few years, which is why he’s still projected as a lottery pick in most mock drafts (even though his collegiate stats don’t jump off the page).
In HoopsHype’s most recent 2019 aggregate big board – which takes into account the latest mock drafts from ESPN, SI.com, Bleacher Report, Sporting News, NBADraft.net and The Athletic – Little was ranked as the 11th-best prospect in this year’s class. The Athletic and Sporting News had Little ranked the highest at No. 9 overall, while Bleacher Report had him ranked the lowest at No. 22 overall.
Since high school, Little has studied Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both stars drastically improved their shot after entering the NBA. Leonard shot 25.0 percent from three in college, but he’s made 38.3 percent of his deep attempts during his NBA career. George shot 29.7 percent from deep as a rookie, but he’s made 38.8 percent of his threes over the past five seasons. Little hopes to have a similar turnaround, but he also models his game after Leonard and George because they’re so well-rounded.
“I watch those guys a lot,” Little said. “With Paul George, I like the way he handles the ball at his size, his craftiness and his ability to score in many different ways. The same can be said for Kawhi Leonard as well. I think Kawhi has improved his ball-handling a lot during his time in the league and he can score in a variety of ways too, whether it’s hitting shots from outside or getting inside. And I really like the way he plays defense. I think they’re both great defensive players.”
Leonard and Little have similar body types, as their height, weight and wingspan are very much the same. And, like Leonard, Little takes pride in being an all-around player who can change a game on both ends of the court. With his size, length and athleticism, Little is tough to score against. That’s another reason why Little wants to work out against other wings in this class: he feels he can shut them down.
When asked what he’ll bring to an NBA team, Little doesn’t hesitate.
“I’m the type of player who’s very versatile,” Little said. “I’m super athletic and I can finish well in the paint, but I also have the ability to hit shots from the outside and in the mid-range area. Once I’m in the league, I definitely think I can take advantage of the spacing. I’ll be able to create opportunities for myself to score as well as creating for others.”
Little still can’t believe that he’ll be joining an NBA team on June 20, 2019 (barring some unforeseen circumstances). At this point, it still feels surreal.
“A lot of people talk about playing in the NBA and they dream about it for their entire life, so for me to have an opportunity to pursue that and actually have a chance to accomplish it is just amazing,” Little said. “It’s going to be hard, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I’m definitely looking forward to my first time just stepping on an NBA court against other guys in the league. I’m just going to take it all in. I’m looking forward to that feeling. It’ll feel like all my hard work is beginning to pay off. Obviously playing my first NBA game isn’t the end-all be-all, but it’s definitely the start of a great journey.”