R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A jab step and a slick baseline drive for a dunk may have been the spark that helped turnaround Nassir Little’s season.
The play was just an example of the talent Little and everybody else knows he has.
But when he’s been given opportunities during his freshman year, particularly during the young ACC season, he’s had a tough time figuring out how to contribute.
That play, during No. 13 North Carolina’s 75–69 victory Tuesday night over Notre Dame, showed how the 6-6 Little, a five-star recruit and sure lottery pick in the NBA draft, can become a force for the Tar Heels.
“Everybody was just waiting for me to do what I do,” Little said.
It was a breakout game for Little, and it says a little about his season that an 11-point night gets that sort of description.
It may have been a relief for UNC fans, but that’s not how he saw it.
“I wouldn’t say a sense of relief,” said Little, who had as many field goals (5) against Notre Dame as he had combined in his previous three ACC games.
“I just want to have fun, man. I wasn’t having fun the last few games and everybody’s all worried and stuff. But, at the end of the day, I was having fun. When we’re not playing well, you tend to stress things too much and overthink.”
Little shifted the stress over to the Irish.
“I came in and started attacking the basket,” he said.
“I really think I fired up the team and then I think we just kind of took advantage and ran with it. As I got in a groove, second half, I started to feel it and took what the defense gave me.”
Little scored all of his points after sitting on the bench for the first 8.5 minutes of the second half, starting with that burst of speed to easily get past 6-11 Irish forward Juwan Durham.
Here we go: Mismatch with the 6-11 Durham on Nassir Little, but this is quick. Blow by and a slam in a blink. pic.twitter.com/uOZZ4tsB7k
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) January 16, 2019
“I saw a big guy on me. I was pretty confident that he couldn’t move his feet as quickly as I could, so I did a simple jab right. I saw a little crease,” said Little, who was in the corner with Cam Johnson lurking on the wing.
“I knew that guy didn’t really want to help off of Cam. I knew nobody was going to come over and help, so I just went up.”
Unlike in the victory at N.C. State when he watched the last six minutes from the bench, Little played crunch-time minutes and didn’t come out until the game was all put away with 28 seconds left.
He earned the minutes by being aggressive, and scoring all five of his field goals around the basket.
Given the chance to drive on a defender one-on-one, he’s going to be more talented than most players trying to guard him.
“That’s definitely my game,” Little said.
“I have a really quick first step and am good at finishing at the basket, so once I see that space, I can attack that easily.”
There were no perimeter jumpers, and he showed he can easily post up and maneuver around the basket against taller players.
“He took the ball to the basket,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
“He got three good passes. Luke [Maye] gave him a pass on the way up and he got a dunk. On a good drive, he got another good pass. Two of them were drives to the basket where he is effective doing that. His shot hasn’t been going in for him and he took it to the basket and made good plays. I think he was probably the key to the game.”
There was no better example of his ability to take over a game than when he pulled down a defensive rebound on one end and drove through the Irish defense at the other end for a 3-point play.
And after grabbing a defensive rebound, goes left, finishes around Mooney. 5-7 FGA for Little in the paint vs. ND, most of that coming right at the rim. pic.twitter.com/D9vuZPZywH
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) January 16, 2019
“I saw the confusion of the point guard talking to his guys trying to pick me up. And I saw another big come up on me again,” Little said of 6-9 Notre Dame forward John Mooney.
“So, I just hit a little hesitation and I’m really good at finishing with both hands on the basket, so I knew I could get to my high left-hand layup.”
Start your day with the same enthusiasm Coby White has for his teammate Nassir Little pic.twitter.com/eOV9tkw3qt
— Dadgum Box Scores (@dadgumboxscores) January 16, 2019
Little obviously can be explosive when he finds the driving lanes, but they haven’t always been there.
They opened up more against the Irish.
“This game, we definitely had better spacing to allow driving lanes,” Little said.
“I think it’s something we really struggled with throughout the season. The bad spacing was really interfering with my game, getting to the basket, things like that. This game, I really got a lot of space and I was really attacking creases.”
This season has been a huge learning experience for Little, who was used to starting and dominating during his high school career at Orlando Christian Prep in Florida.
Coming off the bench hasn’t always been easy for him.
“Coming off the bench, you’ve got to find a way to get yourself involved in the game,” said Little, who plays close to home Saturday when UNC plays at Miami.
“So, initially, I was just focusing on trying to get rebounds, play defense, things like that. Coming off the bench is kind of hard. You’re cold, haven’t touched the ball in a little while, so you have to get the rhythm of the offense and just take advantage of it.”
Playing time has been tough to come by at times for Little with Johnson ahead of him at the 3 and Maye ahead of him at the 4 in the starting lineup.
Little is increasingly finding his niche when he replaces starting center Garrison Brooks and Maye slips to the 5 spot.
Williams has given him an average of 18 minutes in ACC games and Little says that the critiques he gets from his coach have been simple
“He just tells me to be myself,” Little said.
“They recruited me to make plays and I wasn’t doing it at the level that I needed to do it at. He told me for us to be as good as we can be, I have to be who I am. He tells me he believes in me and just have the confidence to make plays.”
There has been quite a bit of debate in the media and among fans on social media about why Little isn’t starting or why he isn’t getting more playing time.
Little has tuned it out.
“People on social media, they don’t have any bearing on what happens in my basketball career,” Little said.
Some of those fans may be yelling for Little to stop attempting 3-pointers.
Although he didn’t try one against Notre Dame, he says that isn’t the guidance he’s getting from Williams.
“He’s actually told me to be more confident in my shot and just shoot it,” said Little, who is 6 of 29 from 3-point range and 0 for 4 in ACC play.
“He believes in me and I just have to take advantage of it.”
Although he mentioned an issue with his shooting hand, he didn’t want to talk much about it and detail the problem.
Clearly, it could be affecting his shooting percentage, even though he routinely makes several consecutive 3-point attempts during warmups.
“I’ve just got to keep improving my jump shot,” Little said.
“My hand has been bothering me a little bit but I’m just going to keep fighting through and eventually the shots will fall.”
His vision of where and what his game could be by the time March comes around is probably the one most fans had when he committed to Carolina.
“I want my game to be just dominating all over the court, whether it’s hitting outside shots, scoring inside, rebounding a lot, getting more steals,” Little said.
“Just doing what I do, man, getting more comfortable at the game and to improve.”
The best is clearly yet to come for Little.
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