Miami Heat

Why Nassir Little thinks he can be the next Kawhi Leonard, and the NBA can be a better fit

When he first arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for his lone season with the North Carolina Tar Heels, Nassir Little had all the making of a top-10 — or maybe even top-five — pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The small forward was the No. 3 overall prospect in the composite rankings for the Class of 2018 and his skill set as a two-way wing made him exactly the sort of prospect NBA teams value most.

Nothing in his only season at North Carolina went exactly as planned. The Tar Heels relegated Little to a bench role, and his production was inconsistent. In a deep frontcourt, it was hard for Roy Williams to carve out a specific role for his five-star freshman.

“Hesitancy. Not being sure of what I was wanted to do at UNC,” Little said May 16 at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “The coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was early on, especially in the offense. It created a lot of hesitancy which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

It all made for a relatively underwhelming season for the forward from Orlando Christian Prep. Little finished his freshman season averaging 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds pre games, while shooting 48.0 percent from the floor and 26.9 percent from three-point range. He decided to declare for the NBA Draft anyway and as a no-brainer to be invited to the Draft Combine.

Those who watched Little in high school still have faith in his potential as a worthy lottery pick. Just a little more than a year ago, Little was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game and an obvious player for mock drafts to project in the top five. Little still believes he’s that player and someone like the Miami Heat, which picks No. 13 next month, could get a steal.

“Throughout the year, I didn’t feel like I played like myself,” Little said. “The guy people saw in high school is really who I am as a player. That’s the guy people are going to see at the next level.”

What are the mock drafts saying?

This dichotomy is what makes Little one of the most difficult prospects to project for the draft next month. Is Little, the college player, or Little, the high school player, the reality?

The mock draft projections are all across the board. One envisions him going as high as No. 8. Another sees him falling all the way to No. 18. The mock draft slots him to the Brooklyn Nets at No. 17. One mock pegs him to the Orlando Magic at No. 16. Another CBS Sports mock has him going to the Atlanta Hawks at No. 10 and yet another at CBS also has him going to the Hawks, only at No. 8. An NBC Sports mock draft has him dropping to the Indiana Pacers at No. 18. The Sporting News’ mock has him going to the Charlotte Hornets at No. 12. The Ringer’s mock slots him to the Boston Celtics at No. 14. And Sports Illustrated’s mock draft likes him to go No. 13 to the Heat.

There is no consensus for one team that likes him or one team where he would be the best fit. There is, however, an obvious range for a player such as Little, with a high ceiling and maybe a low floor, and Miami fits right in the middle.

Although he struggled offensively, defense and motor could give Little a higher floor than the numbers suggest. Those skills also make him a good fit for an organization like the Heat, which prioritizes defense and culture. At the Combine, Little met with the San Antonio Spurs, so he had a lofty comparison for himself on his mind.

“I feel like I can come in as a second version of Kawhi Leonard, be our defensive guy that is able to hit open shots early on and later on add pieces to the game,” Little said. “First version of Nassir, but I see some similarities.”

Bottom line

At No. 13, Little might be Miami’s best chance at landing a future star. The NBA is currently — and almost always — driven by dominant perimeter scorers, typically wings who can handle and shoot the ball. Ideally, they would also be excellent defenders, capable of guarding the other team’s best perimeter scorer when necessary.

When Little scorned the Miami Hurricanes to sign with North Carolina, the Tar Heels hoped they were getting this type of player. The ideal outcome for Little is still something close to this sort of player.

“Each team has different needs, but they like my ability to score the basketball in a variety of ways,” Little said, “and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions.”

With Dwyane Wade retired, the Heat is now desperate for some sort of star power, whether it comes in the form of point forward Justise Winslow, combo guard Josh Richardson or post player Bam Adebayo taking the leap to an All-Star level or acquiring a new future star in some other manner. One option for the latter method would be taking a big swing in the draft.

Picking Little, and hoping the offensive deficiencies he displayed in the last year will be fixed in the NBA, would be a big swing.

“I think I shoot better than I showcased at UNC. I can handle the ball better,” Little said. “I think there is more spacing, more attacking the basket, little bit more freedom offensively. It’s not so structured as it is in college.”

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